People are Strange when You’re a Stranger

There is a fete at the Territorial Army Centre just round the corner from our flat on Saturday. I’m excited as it will hopefully provide the opportunity to buy picture frames for the photographs and paintings that sit around the flat behind boxes, on tables and in piles of random papers that have yet to be given a home. The fete poster, drawn in bright crayons and attached to a tree, read, ‘Summer Fate’ – I definitely wanted some of that.

Saturday arrives with some welcome sunshine as we walk to the Territorial Army Centre. The first pang of disappointment occurs when I see that there are only six trestle tables and a limp looking bouncy castle in the small grass area in front of the large stone building. In the far corner positioned between two large guns are some tables and chairs. And that’s it. It takes all of five minutes for us to walk around the tables; there is nothing of any use to us, no picture frames, no nothing.

As we are arcing across the grass to leave, a young woman comes up to us and asks if we want tea. It seems rude to say no as we are clearly the only customers that have come this close all day, so we wait as she pours us two paper cups of tea. There is no other option but to sit at one of the large round tables amongst the strange looking people already sat there. It becomes instantly apparent that these people are not fete visitors, but organisers and people that are helped by the charity that the fete is in aid of. There is a small old lady in front of me smoking Mayfair’s that seem far too long for her small stature, next to her is a hairy, biker man who it turns out his her son. On my left is a man in his forties, with a grey face and a faded T-shirt that says, ‘Born to be Wild’.

After finishing her tea, Roisín goes off to make an important phone call back at the house. She leaves me with my last sip of tea and these strange people that I know will start to talk to me as soon as she is out of sight. At the moment they are busy finishing off the stilton and watercress soup that a woman at the other table has dished out for them. They occasionally stop to say how nice the soup is. Roisín has now exited the gate and crossed the road; she is out of sight.

“I only ever eat soup out of a packet, me.”

It is the grey, faded man who is speaking in a slow, dour Lincolnshire accent at me.

“I eat Bachelor’s, that’s all. Out of a packet. I had venison once. It was nothing special. I eat soup out of the packet.”

The old lady explains that she likes leek and potato, but then thoughtfully adds,

“Sometimes I can’t find it though.”

Then the man turns to me once more and asks,

“Have you ever had nettle soup?”

I say that I haven’t.

“I imagine it’s bitter. Fizzy,” he says and silence settles.

The conversation starts up again, faltering, this time on holidays.

“I hate Spain. Full of Brits,” he says

And although he is a man that clearly isn’t, he adds, “I go where people don’t go. I’m an adventurer.” Nobody around the table believes him.

He starts up again, “My wife once said to me, ‘I’d like to go somewhere I’ve never been this year.’ I said to her, ‘How about the kitchen then.’

It is a joke entirely devoid of humour; it’s a bitter, sad poem from this empty, broken man. There is no hint of a smile on his face, no acknowledgement that he has delivered a joke just a dreadful silence.

The old lady asks him, if he and his wife are still together. It is only at this point that he laughs; a big hollow uncomfortable laugh, like the sorrow of the world billowing out. The silence settles back in as soon as he stops. Roisín has still not returned. A Polish couple in their twenties have left the book table unattended and have come to sit next to me. They share a bowl of soup and touch each other inappropriately almost constantly. I eat a lemon cake for something to do and text Roisín the words, “Save me.” Five minutes later she does and we walk down Park Street into town and far away from the ‘summer fate’.

After a couple of hours of wandering around Bristol City centre, we decide to head back home; we don’t get far as a man with long black hair, thick glasses and a liberal covering of dandruff across his blazer accosts us. Apparently, today the 23rd of August is the anniversary of the abolition of slavery and there is a special program of music, dance and talks taking place in St Stephen’s church. We wander in; why not?

That unique boredom that I associate with church kicks in after about ten minutes; it lifts only slightly when two middle-aged white men perform an elaborate dance entitled Timelines. The majority of the dance involves them walking back and forth across the altar, occasionally waving to each other or moving their fingers elaborately in the air, writing unseen words. Five minutes in and the music changes and they begin to have whole-body fits at different sides of the altar. Then the walking and waving and writing in the air begins again. It reminds me of the Dude’s neighbour’s dance in the Big Lebowski; it’s a lot like a scene from a Peter Greenway film.

Some local poets and writers read their work from the pulpit; a black rap-dance troupe dressed in streetwear and looking pretty damn cool perform some hip-hop ode to Jesus with a white man in his forties dressed in a baseball cap singing an off-key falsetto chorus. It is ridiculous. If I take anything from this too long collection of performances, it is that white people shouldn’t be allowed to talk or perform. The white bishop, following the rap-dance troupe, uses hip-hop hands and posturing despite his considerable age and straightness. A local councillor spends twenty-minutes talking about how he grew up in a racist Essex society, but then met a nice black person. His speech has no point what-so-ever.

After the performances and speeches finish we are invited for refreshments. I need refreshment, big time. In a small back room at the far side of the church is an array of food on large white dishes. I eat lots of saltfish and some ‘bun and cheese’. Then we leave, managing not to speak to anyone.

On the way up Park Street, we find ourselves walking behind two people in fluorescent jackets that have ‘Jesus Lives’ written on the back in pen. The man who looks a little like Charles Manson is shouting at his wife, “It’s against God’s will.” He shouts it louder and louder, getting increasingly spastic in his movements. I run in front of them and feel like keeping on running until I get to the safety of my flat before this day gets any stranger.

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Tom Spooner

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