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Saturday night in The Gloucester Arms, "Oxford's Number One Rock Pub". In truth, "The Gloc" is Oxford's only rock pub, known city-wide for being loud and disreputable. I had been a regular here a couple of years ago, then had yo-yoed back and forth between Oxford and other places for another couple of years before settling back in the town. Running from a failed engagement, I gravitated back to familiar settings, familiar faces, and the increasingly familiar feeling of a monstrous hangover on a Sunday morning.
I had recurrent bouts of what can only be described as Saturday Night Fever - if that's not too Seventies an expression. It set in at about two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and built up over the course of the next two or three hours at the end of which period, I'd be climbing the walls, desperate to get out of the flat and into town. If I could resist the temptation (OK, I'll admit it, compulsion) to go out until about seven o'clock, then all was well, and I'd spend a quiet night in watching telly (sad but true). Most often, however, I would be out of the flat by six and out of my skull by eight. Nights like this usually ended badly.
But at least wasn't drinking by myself. Some mates from the regular Sunday role-playing session (yes, I know - don't say it!) had made it into town for the first time in weeks. They were ducking family responsibilities, cash-flow problems, distance from civilisation and all the other glitches that modern life throws at you. Sometimes I felt like I was the only one keeping the cage door open. At the very least I could see out of my cage: it was, after all, made out of beer glasses.
The conversation turned inevitably to role-playing games and my heart sank. Don't get me wrong. I've played and refereed (or "ran") a number of such campaigns, and they remain an enduring hobby. Games like these have their uses: they stimulate the imagination; encourage the exchange of ideas; require a good standard of mental arithmetic and an above average command of English; are all round good entertainment (my opinion); and are an excellent way of dealing with Sunday afternoons and what Douglas Adams would term "the long dark teatime of the soul". I'm almost certain that I could give this team a map of any Government building in Oxford and they'd be able to plan the perfect break-in. The actual execution would be a bit difficult, however, as they'd have to stop every five minutes and roll dice to see if they had successfully unlocked a door. And God help them if they met a dragon.
So when the subject of Vampire: The Masquerade came up, I made hasty excuses and exited for the bar. I could grab a bonus pint or two while they were discussing the relative merits of Clan Tremere versus Clan Ventrue (something about sorcerous versus worldly power).
I stood at the bar, back to the jukebox, with spilled beer soaking into the elbows of my leather jacket and spent a few minutes looking around the pub's dim interior.
Most of the pub was panelled in darkly varnished wood. Those parts that weren't wood were covered in a bizarre array of coverings and ornamentation: dark wallpapers; posters from forgotten rock concerts (I could see Rodney Matthews artwork, too); bits of motorbikes and biker memorabilia; the whole was wreathed in cigarette smoke. Perhaps incongruously, there was also a broad selection of signed photographs from the many actors, actresses and other performers who had appeared at the theatres in Oxford. To those who knew the city, however, this was nothing to be surprised about: the Gloc was sandwiched between the Oxford Apollo Theatre on George Street and The Playhouse on Beaumont Street. In fact, the Playhouse's Stage Door could be seen from the back door of the Gloc.
The Gloc was one of those places that, despite its reputation, attracted a broad cross-section of people. The place was busier than I'd seen it for some time. Heavy, death and thrash metal were thumping out of the jukebox behind me, filling the pub with raucous music and grotesque vocals. I'd always preferred my rock music to be more melodic and have lyrics I could understand. The wall of noise pounding out of the speakers didn't cut it on either criterion. Looking around, I could see half-a-dozen "hairies" in Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica t-shirts banging their heads off their table. These people had been at the jukebox earlier and looked like they'd put a quid each into the machine. At five selections for a pound, that's thirty tracks they had queued up, so the crap music would continue for some time.
At the far end of the bar were the regulars, laughing it up with the landlord and two of the barmen. I knew most of these people as acquaintances, simply to say "hi" to and little else. It'd occasionally be difficult to get served round here if the bar staff were dealing with the regulars. But hey, what's the point of being a regular if you can't get served quickly? The regulars also congregated near the front door and acted as the Gloc's security. Most places have conspicuous-looking bouncers outside the door. Not the Gloc; in here the security and the regulars were one and the same.
I think there was a gig in town that night (Marillion in the Venue?) and there was an above-average concentration of rockers in the bar. This was no bad thing; it beat hands down the University-looking types at the table under the stairs (one of these guys was even wearing a cravatte!)
Added to that were members of some motorbike club, easily recognised with their club patches. That explained the half-dozen shiny Kawasakis and Yamahas outside the pub. Even if they weren't regulars, they'd be welcome in the Gloc, which also advertised itself as "Oxford's Number One Biker-Friendly Pub".
A few guys in smart casuals were getting drinks in. They looked decidedly out of place amongst all the denim, leather and long hair. They'd be here for a swift one before going somewhere more trendy.
Oxford's Goth contingent seemed to be out in force. I counted at least a dozen of them, black-clad and moody-looking; the girls were on snakebite-and-black or vodka, the boys on lagers, largely ignoring the girls. What was it about Goth girls? Some of them looked unbearably pretty and it would have been a revelation to see them dressed in lighter colours and with less make-up. Particularly the tall girl who stood just on the edge of the gathering.
Six-foot tall, willowy, with long, silky black hair flowing freely over her shoulders; dressed in a black leather long coat over what looked like a black mini-dress and long boots of shiny black leather. Her face was very pale, almost white, except for her lips, which pouted beautifully and were painted a deep crimson, and her clear blue eyes, which were heavily made up with Egyptian-style kohl. She was engrossed in conversation with another girl, bent over to hear what the shorter girl was saying.
I couldn't see much of the other girl but she didn't strike me as particularly "Gothic". From behind she seemed to have a trim figure, largely hidden by a battered-looking tan leather jacket which looked several sizes too big for her, and short dark brown hair. She and the tall Gothette were laughing and giggling together when the taller girl tapped her shoulder and pointed at me. Fuck! I thought. It wasn't "cool" to get spotted ogling girls, not that it hadn't happened to me a million times before! The girl in the tan jacket turned to look at me and I expected to be subjected to a withering glance and maybe an upraised single digit. But no. She smiled, broadly, warmly, showing perfect white teeth, the canines much longer and more pointed than they should have been!
Coming on top of three pints, a couple of shots, and the conversation I'd just left at the table, this took me by surprise a bit. There was a vampire in the Gloucester Arms! She tossed her head back, flicking the long, floppy fringe away from her eyes and laughed. What little light there was in the Gloc glinted off her fangs. Nothing left but grace under pressure, I thought, so I pointed at my own teeth and flashed a Love the fangs! grin across at her. She stopped laughing, raised her glass, and smiled back. For a second we made eye contact and my world stopped: the music faded to silence; conversation ceased; my heart went bump and I began to wonder if it would ever start beating again. The second stre-e-e-e-e-tched ...
And that's where it should have ended.
A hand interrupted my vision breaking my eye contact with the girl. "What do you want, mate?" This was Chris, one of the barmen.
"Eh?" The real world came crashing in on me and my heart pounded, making up for the time it had been neglecting its job.
"A drink. This is a pub, you know," Chris said. "The usual?"
I was quickly regaining my mental feet. "Yeah. But add a JD to the list, plus whatever you want." This was not mere generosity on my part. I had a feeling that Chris' interruption had just gotten me out of a lot of trouble. When Chris turned away, I looked towards the Gothette and her friend. They were deep in conversation again. I knocked back the JD in one and chased it with a large swallow of Stella.
My head was spinning pleasantly when I rejoined my friends. Their topic of discussion hadn't changed much but it sounded like Clan Ventrue had got the vote in the power-stakes (which was a pity because I would have put my money on the Tremere).
"What's up, mate? One too many? Hur, hur, hur." This comment came from Mike. Back in the real world he had a wife and two kids and spent most waking hours working to pay for it. Nights like this were a comparative rarity for him. Added to that was the fact that his wife was a tee-totaller and that made him virtually the same. He'd had half the amount I'd had to drink and was already looking wobbly. "Seriously, you look like you've seen a ghost."
"Not a ghost," I muttered, "I think I just saw a vampire." That remark caused mass hilarity and not a few cries of bullshit. "No, I mean it. She was over there, talking with one of the Goths." Mass hilarity cranked up a notch to borderline hysteria. I couldn't see why they didn't believe me. After all, if a vampire was going to be talking to anyone in this joint, it would be the Goths, right?
Fuck it, I thought, time to feed the pig. By which I meant that it was time to put some money into the jukebox and get some decent music to listen to. I spent five or ten minutes at the jukebox. It was eight o'clock and I might just get my selection played before closing time. On returning to my table, the general consensus seemed to be that it was my round. I did some mental checking and reckoned they were probably right but was slightly wasted by that point.
"Back soon," I said, and departed for the Gents.
I weaved through the crowd around the bar. The tall Gothette was involved in a heated discussion with one of the Goth-guys, and she was jabbing a sharply-pointed, black-painted fingernail against his chest. It turned out that I'd underestimated her height: six-foot in bare feet, perhaps, but her boots had a three-inch heel. Nice. Her friend was laughing and chatting with a couple of the "casual" guys near the bar. It was clear when she laughed that her "fangs" had disappeared. Tooth caps, I reckoned, relaxing slightly.
It's traditional to sign the wall in the Gloc. There are two big blackboards and chalk for that very purpose in the Gents. I drew my usual signature, the stylised head of an Ork, with large pointy ears and upward-pointing tusks. Sad but true, I even had a "smiley" for it, to use in emails:
Finishing my work of art, I returned to the bar, to see an argument going on. The guy the "vampire" had been talking to was being berated by another woman, her face contorted in a mixture of jealousy and rage. He held his hands up in a "baby, please" gesture, unable to interrupt her flow of criticism. It was then I noticed the wedding band he was wearing. Poor bastard, I thought, though whether my sympathy came simply for his being married or the look on his wife's face was difficult even for me to tell.
The Gothette's friend was standing just behind me and I turned to her. "Have you been causing trouble?" I asked with a grin.
"No more than usual," she replied with an innocent air that I knew could only have been genuine way back when she was six. She laughed. Paranoia made me check for the fangs again but I couldn't see any. Then she reached up and straightened the collar of my leather jacket. "Scruffy sod," she said, her accent pure East End, looking into my eyes.
This time, the world reassuringly kept turning and I managed to retain my mental equilibrium. "Scruffy, yes," I admitted, "but at least this jacket fits me." It was the snappiest comeback I could think of on short notice. Our gaze held for a short while. "I'm a scruff called Callum," I introduced myself.
She giggled prettily. "Lacey," she said, putting down her drink, and extending her hand, while searching my face for any hint of thoughts like what a bloody stupid name!
I took her hand and kissed it. Yes, I know this was a corny gesture but I had my hangups like everyone else: one of mine happened to be a misplaced (some might say misguided) sense of chivalry. Her hand was slightly cool but I took that to be due to the half-full glass of iced Coke she had been holding. The kiss elicited the giggle again. "And you must be my knight in shining armour," Lacey said, this time in a cut-glass English accent.
"Or scuffed black leather," I said with a shrug. "Your choice. But I must warn you that my chainmail's at the dry cleaners."
"Oooh. I'll settle for the leather, then," Lacey said. "Buy me a drink?"
"What's your poison?"
"Just Coke. Ice, please."
"Coming up," I turned to the bar and ordered our drinks, completely forgetting that I was supposed to be buying a round for the rest of my mates.
Lacey and I were leaning against the bar chatting amiably. She was a few inches shorter than me and, as I'd noticed before, had dark brown hair cut quite short at the back and sides but with a long, floppy fringe that she frequently had to flick out of her eyes, a rather enchanting habit, I thought. Her face was heart-shaped and delicate. She wore just a hint of make-up, a little glossy lipstick that emphasised her full lower lip, some pink blusher on her cheeks, and a sprinkling of something glittery about her eyes. Her eyes were beautiful: large and animated, the colour of dark coffee beans. Heartstopping! She was dressed casually in tight, faded blue jeans, a white crop top with a plunging neckline and short, pointy-toed boots. Her small ears were each pierced three times and she wore a variety of silver sleepers and studs. The rest of her jewellery comprised a number of silver rings, bracelets and necklaces, so many that she jingled when she moved. All in all, Lacey was a dazzlingly pretty girl.
All throughout our conversation, Lacey used a bewildering array of accents, her repertoire extending beyond "East Enders reject" and "upper-class toff" to include "Country Yokel", "Streetwise Yoof", "New York - Bronx", "New York - Brooklyn", "Mexican Bandido" and (my particular favourite) "French Courtesan". The one she couldn't do was "North East England", try as I might to teach her!
Lacey had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of movies which just increased my attraction to her. Movies were a hobby of mine, too: on those nights when I wasn't so desperate to blot out my senses with alcohol, I'd normally go see a film and take refuge in someone else's fantasy world, which beat the crap out of living in my own world.
Something thumped heavily on my shoulder. "Cheers for the drink, mate," Mike said from behind me.
Reality came flooding back. I'd spent the last hour falling under Lacey's spell and had totally forgotten the people I'd arrived with. "Shit. Sorry, man. What was it you all wanted?" I turned to the bar and tried to get served. I was vaguely aware of Lacey and Mike talking behind me and was worried that she'd transfer her attention to him. She didn't seem to have a problem with chatting up married men. Then I felt Lacey press against me and her arm slipped around my waist.
"You got those drinks yet?" she asked. "Add a Coke for me. I'm off to the girls room."
I turned and watched her walk off accompanied by her tall Gothette friend.
girl," Mike commented with a leer. "Are you going to join
us, or have you pulled?"
"Too early to say. Let's get these drinks sorted out."
Lacey and her friend were gone for over half an hour. I had rejoined my mates at our table and was alternating between the conversation and thinking (or brooding) about Lacey when she and the Gothette appeared at the table. I felt a wave of relief flood over me.
"Sorry we took so long," Lacey said. "Girly chat. You know how it is."
"Er, yeah, I thought I did." There was a slightly embarrassed silence. "I should do the introductions," I said, remembering my manners. I went round the table introducing my mates. "And this is Lacey and?" turning to the Gothette.
"Georgie," she said, with the same no funny comments look Lacey had given me earlier. "Look, Lace, I've got to see Matt. He's in a bit of a mood at the moment."
Lacey turned her back on me and the rest so I couldn't see the look on her face but, judging by the way Georgie blanched, it couldn't have been very pleasant. The Gothette recovered her poise quickly and said, "Look Lacey, don't start that again. Please?"
I saw Lacey heave a sigh. "Okay. You take good care." Georgie nodded and Lacey stood on tiptoes to hug her friend, who returned the embrace warmly. Georgie smiled at me before turning to leave.
Lacey turned back to face me. "I think I owe you a drink, don't I? And what about your friends? Can I get them a drink too?" We went to the bar and I managed to get spotted and served before Lacey. After all, what's the point of being a regular if you can't do that sort of thing? I delivered the drinks to my mates and went back to the bar to join Lacey. She was swaying slightly in time to the music, which I recognised as Aerosmith's Love in an Elevator. Finally, my selection had come on!
"You put this on?" she asked, her glass raised part way to her lips. When I nodded, she put down the glass and said, "Good choice."
I decided to brag a bit: "I saw them on the Get a Grip tour back in '93. Wembley Arena. Excellent gig."
"That was a bit before my time, I'm afraid. I was only fourteen," Lacey said with a giggle. I did some mental arithmetic (a challenge for me at the best of times but after the amount I'd had to drink it was like the Krypton Factor meets Mastermind) and worked out that Lacey must be about 21 or 22, depending on her birthday. I'd have put money on her birthday being sometime in August, making her a Leo in all likelihood. Yet another reason to feel attracted to her.
We talked during the rest of my selection: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, ZZ Top, AC/DC. The best of Mid-80's rock and metal. Lacey understandably criticised my singing but what I lack in talent I make up for in enthusiasm.
It was getting towards the end of the night when we were interrupted by Georgie, looking concerned. "Lacey, I need a hand. Matt's too drunk to stand and I need to get him to a cab."
"I can help out, if you want," I offered immediately, chivalry kicking in on a mixture of booze and a desire to be wherever Lacey was.
Georgie stiffened. She tore her gaze from Lacey and looked down at me, her heels giving her a five-inch height advantage. "That won't be necessary," she said crisply, "thanks for the offer. Lacey?"
"Okay," Lacey said to her friend. She turned to me, "I've got to go, Cal, sorry." She pecked me quickly on the cheek. "See you soon."
I watched Lacey and Georgie leave and, feeling devastated, finished my drink and ordered another. By now I was rather drunk but registered the two girls staggering out of the Gloc with a strongly built six-foot Goth guy supported between them. Luckily, the nearest taxi rank was less than a minute's walk from the pub.