Thursday 29th December

Only drunk outside, tee-total biographer of eminent Victorians (6)

And so to the Stag Do. Some might sample the fleshy delights of Riga or Ljubljana, others might go paintballing in the wilds of the Surrey stockbroker belt. But Phil just wants us to go out for a curry and a few jars of ale before an early night and his big day tomorrow. So we’re going to Chutneys Indian Brasserie (with optional added apostrophe) and then to the Royal Blenheim, just off St Ebbes (ditto). It’ll be half a dozen nearly middle-aged men behaving not particularly badly.

The poppadoms prove to be a bit limp but we are hardly the Bullingdon Club and the meal passes without significant incident. Most of us repair to the Blenheim but Phil only stops for a single pint, pleading the need for some beauty sleep before his big day. I am tempted to remind him that his first stag night was a little more reckless, especially the last bit on Hampstead Heath.

The rest of the stags soon go back to their wives, leaving just me and Ozzie, the only poor fools without partners to minister to our every need. One pint of Ecky Thump soon leads to another. Ozzie proposes a toast to James Joyce who published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a hundred years ago today. I remind him that it was a hundred years ago this very night that his namesake, Oswald Rayner, shot Rasputin somewhere in the grounds of the Moika Palace.

Ozzie laments the fact that he has never tasted Madeira, so we decide to order a couple of shots of that particular amber nectar from the bar – alas, they’ve never heard of it. It seems the heyday (or, at least, the monopoly) of Madeira is long-past.

“Isn’t there the Madeira Stores on the Headington Roundabout?” Ozzie suggests. “They should sell the stuff …”

“Mmm, a bit too far,” I decide.

But keen to toast the triumphs of Oswalds past, the two of us repair to a Tesco Express on St Aldate’s and find a bottle of the aforementioned tipple on “special offer” at just £13.99. We successfully pool the necessary funds (just!) and sheepishly take our solitary bottle to the check-out. But such purchases are clearly not unusual in these parts at this time of night and the check-out girl gives us not so much as a knowing glance as she clocks up the sale.

It is approaching midnight now and the pavement is slippery with incipient frost but when we take a slug of Madeira straight from the gaudy bottle, it tastes surprisingly smooth and warming. The bottle goes to and fro a few times and I am beginning to feel a little light-headed.

“I think Oswald Rayner is buried in Botley Cemetery,” Ozzie surmises. “What say you to the idea of trotting along there and seeing if we can find his grave? This rocket-fuel should keep us going along the way.”

“Also too far,” I decree. “If you mean the war graves tucked away behind the Best Tiles and Bathstore, I don’t think we’ll find him in there. That’s just soldiers, not spies.”

On the corner of Speedwell St, I am sufficiently compos mentis to spot a poster glued precariously to a lamp-post:

A-Wassailing we go
Thursday December 29th, 10 p.m.
Hogacre Common Eco-Park,
Off Whitehouse Rd, South Oxford
Join us in the tradition of Wassailing the orchard, with mulled apple juice, cider,
singing, Morris Dancing with Cry Havoc, and a roaring fire.

Hogacre Common, my ancestral kingdom! Have you ever been there?”

“Never heard of it,” says Ozzie. “And what the hell is “wassailing the orchard”?”

“Some kind of pagan fertility ritual, I guess, a song and dance to make the apples grow next year. I think we should go and join in!”

“What, with Cry Havoc and the Morris dancing?” Ozzie shakes his head. “I’m with Sir Thomas Beecham on that one. Do you think they’ll let loose the hogs of war?”

“At least those veggies won’t be roasting one. Unlike Phil and Marie-Claire tomorrow, from what I hear. Come on, let’s do it. The night is yet young,” I point out, somewhat inaccurately.

So off we gambol. We head south down the Abingdon Rd towards Ozzie’s flat in Lake St and turn right into Whitehouse Rd where the old Oxford City football ground has been turned into yet more college accommodation. We swig Madeira as we go – its cloying sweetness proves strangely moreish. We consume the whole bottle in less than five minutes, passing it to and fro like a sconce challenge. It is more than enough to make a Hogg whimper. A drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hogweed I had drunk, like those zonked beetles.

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