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Fright or flight

We're sat in the corner of a pub off Piccadilly Circus on Wednesday night. We have been drinking all evening and my companion is reeling from being the latest person I have taken around the M&Ms World theme park. Suddenly a stranger joins us. A very heavy-set man, with a neat beard and all but bald, in a suit with three shirt buttons open, plonks himself down on one of the stools, exhales and runs a hand down his face. He is perspiring and very drunk, and he is blocking our exit from the corner. It is clear that he has nominated us as his company for the foreseeable. “Evening, gents,” he says.

“All right?” we say.

He exhales again. “Yeah, I'm all right,” he says. “I just had a fight with a gypsy on Hampstead Heath.”

After a moment, we make interested noises.

“He wanted to fight my dad. Can you believe that, picking a fight with a 75 year-old man? My dad says to me, 'David, I need you to fight for me'. So I got in the ring.” We agree that this was the right thing to do. “I play rugby, right, I'm a prop forward, so I got in there low and early and charged into him.”

“Right, once you knock the wind out of them then it's easy,” says my companion, trying to find common cause, although he has been in close-quarters combat approximately as many times as I have swum the Channel.

“That's right. Then I got him in a headlock...” He demonstrates a headlock. “... and battered him.” He demonstrates that too. “And it was all over.”

“I guess,” says my companion reflectively, “if a gypsy picked a fight with any of our dads, we all like to think we'd be hard as nails.”

Among the music and pub chatter, the drunk gypsy-fighter mishears. His head jerks up. “You slagging off my dad?”

My companion, himself far from sober, is slow to notice the sudden shift in mood. “No, I'm agreeing with you,” he begins cheerfully.

“Well, DON'T,” snaps the gypsy-fighter, shifting ominously on his stool. I take a chance and lean in, not sure exactly what I'm going to say. “Mate, seriously,” I turn out to smile conspiratorially, indicating my companion, “don't be fooled by the accent.”

It doesn't really make sense but it works, thank God. Our boy looks at me, light dawning that he might not have heard correctly. “American?” I nod. He breaks into a smile and lunges to shake my companion's hand. “Sorry, mate,” he cries, relieved; “David.” My companion, more relieved still, gives his own name in turn. Dave turns to me and says expectantly, “David”. I smile and say “Hi, David”. He wipes his eyes. “Look at that,” he grins in disbelief, “I'm tearing up just because I though you was slagging off my dad. Fucking hell, David, that's disgusting.”

He returns to his subject. “Gypsies, they're all right in a fight,” he explains. “No weapons. Just... fists.” And he holds up his broad hands to reveal the large welts on his knuckles.

A woman in her 70s sits down at the next table. He says hallo. He's saying hallo to everyone tonight. She reciprocates carefully, polite but wary. He turns back to us. “I tell you what,” he says, “I'm terrified of women. A geezer, that's no problem, you can batter him, but you can't do that. What can you fucking...? I mean, look at her, you wouldn't cross her, would you?” We agree that we would not.

More women join the 70 year-old and he gets chatting to them. My companion heads off to the toilet. In introducing himself to the ladies at the table, David turns to us, finds only me and slurs, “And this is my friend... um... I've forgotten his name.” They are unpersuaded.

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