When I was at uni I thought I did ridiculous deeds because I was drunk, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realise that I did ridiculous deeds anyway, and sometimes I was also partially inebriated.
During an archaeological dig at a place called Star Carr in the summer holidays between first and second year, I met Oscar and his girlfriend. Oscar was a kindred spirit. We were doers of ridiculous deeds and sometimes we were also partially inebriated. He always saw me as one of the lads which is also how I saw him.
If you’ve never been on an archaeological dig in a remote location, it’s like being at a festival. For several weeks. Only instead of loud music, there are irreplaceable finds and that one rebel who plays Wonderwall on a borrowed ukulele.
You make friends that you bare your soul to then never see again, and you make other friendships that last a lifetime. You solve problems you never knew existed (how do you get stream water twenty feet up a hill for wet sieving? With an air bed pump, of course. How do you measure 50cm intervals in a test pit? Potatoes, naturally).
The best part is, almost everyone on a dig is the right sort of person. What Enid Blyton called a good sort. Not a dick. Occasionally, someone comes along and acts like they own the place, but their edges soon get rubbed away by the nature of the work. No one cares if your dad owns a Titian, Freya, you’re still a spoilt brat, do some work or go home.
This season, 2007, some terribly wealthy landed gentry lent us their second house, a ten-bedroom garret they were renovating so they could downsize into it from the big house. They kindly offered us the use of their swimming pool at certain times of the day, too. We didn’t take the biscuit–we still drove down to the village and showered at the local swimming pool.
We had some hilarious misadventures during the dig, such as the time Oscar managed to fit sixteen people in his Land Rover to get us all to the pub in the local village after a long day’s digging. There was the time Marion and I finished up the night at the top of a haystack pondering whether sheep were tiny portable haystacks.
You might not believe me, but no mind-altering substances were involved.
Anyway, the party ended, we took the finds back to the university in a big van and a bit later, term re-commenced. This was a tri-university collaboration, so some diggers returned to Oxford, others to Manchester and the rest of us were back at York (with the finds).
I stayed in touch with lots of people from the dig, and Oscar and I exchanged party invites. I had always seen him and his girlfriend as one unit so I invited them both to my birthday. His girlfriend came and he didn’t, and that was fine because she brought a friend. The more the merrier.
I went to theirs, too. There was a bit of a weird atmosphere and I didn’t get it but it culminated in his girlfriend trying to make me eat earwigs or whatever it was their reptile ate, which I thought was a little bit off as I was a vegan.
With the bloody obvious hindsight, while Oscar and I saw each other as “one of the lads”, his girlfriend did not.
Anyway, at some point, out of the blue, Oscar texted me to say he was on his way to York and could I take out some money and acquire food as his debit card was lost. I’d been planning to write an essay but what the hey, I could scrap that.
I went to a cash machine and found out I was about £100 out of the other end of my overdraft. So my overdraft was £1000 and I was about £1100 overdrawn. Oops. I texted him to let him know I was out of money. He sent money by bank transfer.
I took out money and got us a table at a restaurant. He arrived. We ate curry and laughed at the world’s largest naan breads. We drank beer. We talked. We went to the pub and drank some more. We talked some more. We went back to mine and drank some more. Talking nonstop. The really great thing about Oscar was that he talked as much as I did.
It didn’t seem at all strange that he’d turned up on the other side of the country out of the blue to get food and alcohol because this was Oscar and it was the sort of thing he did.
A couple of months earlier, I’d done a similar thing in a Sleeping Beauty costume to cheer a friend up who wasn’t doing so great. That was a fun 4-hour train ride.
Randomness was both of our middle names. So when we were alone together and unsupervised by responsible people, we got very drunk on Blue Moon (one of my favourite beers) and ran out of cigarettes. At the time, Holland and Barrett sold these godawful herbal cigarettes for about £2 a pack, and I had a packet that I had bought, smoked one, and been too disgusted to throw them away. I had expected them to taste like chargrilled chamomile, sage, or lavender. They did not. This was before the days of e-cigarettes.
When we ran out of Marlboro, we moved onto these herbal things. They were like smoking dishcloths. I can’t remember which of us came up with that analogy but I know we both fell about laughing after it was said.
“There’s an abandoned bridge near here and I think it’s Victorian but I’m not sure. Fancy being a second opinion?” I asked at some point.
“I’ll take a look. Bring your flute and the cigarettes.”
So, at 4a.m., we decided the best thing to do was to go for a walk by the river. I led the way, two miles-ish across the big bridge and left through a spinney, a field, and eventually, to a place where a stream merged with the river. There was a fallen bridge and trees grew over it. I’d never seen it during the day, but I often walked out here late at night when I wanted some peace and fresh air.
Bolder and more agile than I, Oscar climbed across a fallen tree and reached the bridge. I passed him the flute, in its case, and I followed more hesitantly. I’d learned a lot from my younger brook jumping days and I didn’t fall in.
We perched on a mossy bit of tree and contemplated the bridge. Then we got onto the topic of whether it was a bridge over a stream or a brook. And, at last, we got the flute out. I am a night-time flute player, and have been ever since first year, after the director of music at York laughed at my audition to join the university orchestra.
I played Habañera from Carmen and he played some complicated Mozart and Beethoven. Oscar was just stunningly good at everything he ever did and I loved getting swept up in the current. I often thought that must be what it was like to be friends with a superhero.
There was no tension, since I was partly a lesbian and mostly not really interested in that sort of stickiness.
We finished the herbal cigarettes and stayed there until it was starting to get light. Then we very carefully made our way off the bridge, went back to mine and got a couple of hours sleep. He slept on the floor.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had an all-night misadventure, but there is this moment around sunrise when two realities compete for dominance, then the day world wins and civilisation resumes.
Left to my own devices, that would have been the end of the adventure. But not for Oscar.
Somehow, he knew of a local place that did an all-you-can-eat breakfast so we went there, next, and then an hour or two later, he disappeared in his Land Rover and I never saw him ever again.
But one day, I’ll get a phone call (probably a Facebook call, with modern tech) out of the blue, and it will be Oscar, and it will turn out we’re both in Thailand at the same time or some other co-incidence, and we will have a completely different random misadventure.
*All people’s names changed