Where would you hear somebody ask "'Celibate'. Is that a vegetable you buy at Tesco's?", or be told about the man who eats Mars Bars because they made a race-horse run so fast that it got tested for dope? The Excelsior café on Cowley Road is a haven for people who are mentally ill or who don't have a decent place to live. Some seem to spend the entire day there. And although it doesn't say much for Britain's mental-health care and social housing that such a haven is needed, it does add a certain bizarreness to the conversations one overhears. I used to frequent the Excelsior in order to think about computing and work on my "Excelsior" spreadsheet software; to chat; or just to drink the excellent coffee. And it's snatches from those conversations, noted down rather surreptitiously, that I've reprinted in this booklet.
If you look at the café's "Open" sign, you'll see that it's in Greek — "Ανοικτόν" — as well as in English. This is because the Excelsior was set up by Greek Cypriots: Andy, Jack, and Kostas, who, I've heard, came over in the 1950s. They were certainly there by the 1960s. A few years ago, I met a man in Stow on the Wold who recalled the café in 1963. During that year's terrible winter, he told me, he met many people there who had nowhere else to go to escape the cold. The café staff looked after these customers well, even letting them buy food on tab.
Some of those customers, unfortunately, didn't pay their bills once winter had gone and they no longer needed the café. And some customers today still cause problems. But they are always well looked after, difficult though that can be. A few days ago another habitué of the Excelsior told me about being in there when a customer had a fit. Andy phoned for an ambulance, and an ambulanceman duly walked through the door. "Which one's the patient?", he asked. From the back of the café came the shout "They're all patients. Take your pick!"
In each piece of conversation, by the way, I've identified speakers by A, B, and so on. An A in one exchange may not be the same person as an A in another. And I've written J for Jack, K for Kostas, and — because A was already taken — Z for Andy. For anonymity, I've changed the names of everyone else.
A Tea Andy thank you.
A Three coffees Andy.
A Tea please Kos while you're stood there doing nowt.
K Ena scrambled eggs kai dio bacon sandwich!
A You can always tell when they're doing well here. The flies get very fat.
K Dio toast and marmalade!
A You see in the paper today? It's the 20th busiest bus route in England? The Number 5.
A The ducks were coming in and trampling my plants, so I moved it. It didn't take them two days to find out where I'd hidden it. Bloody old ducks, they nearly trampled half my plants to death.
K Thelei sték. Sték mé boiled potatoes.
A Evenin' all. Hot today.
B Where's your pith helmet?
A I told it to pith off.
A I was passing Magdalen College yesterday and I noticed they had some daffodils out. Lovely, Spring, ain't it?
A Don't worry, it will go back to normal tomorrow.
B You mean raining?
A Yes. Miserable.
A I had nextesex on the back.
B An Exocet?
A 'Next to sex'.
B 'Next to sex'?
A 'Next to sex, I love my Honda best'.
B At least he put it in the right order. I'd be very worried if it was the other way round.
A What were you doing taking two boys to the pictures
in a military vehicle?
B My car was off the road and someone lent me a Champ.
A It's better if you keep off the road really, isn't it?
A I'm going in under my Dad. The plot's
B They grind the rest up, don't they? They got a grinder out the back.
A ... changes at the library. The Bodleian is cutting our hours — we'll lose £80 a month. The Union is having a meeting about it today ...
A ... 18 year old guy that Wenger picked up in France ...
A ... I put the Oxford Mail in the Senior Common Room and this old don says 'I see the College is short of toilet paper again' ...
A ... went to the Basque country and slept out in the mountains. Well, it's better than sleeping out in London...
A ... They didn't grow Cos lettuces in Roman times ...
A When Andy serves me. I ordered a tea, but it's like waiting for bloody washing to dry.
A Large coffee please Kostas, thank you.
K They say, Kostas, when you go to England, do not make too many friends. You work Saturday, Sunday, Easter, every day. You have no time for friends.
A ... je pense que, avec la privatisation ...
A ... Crianza is after one year. Reserva is after two. Gran Reserva is after four ...
A ... and he was sending out recipes for human flesh from prison ...
A ... Zionism has always been fascist, and caused as much harm to Jews as to Gentiles ...
A ... If you go back to the time of Jesus, money was something that evolved in the temples, as a way of paying the right respects to God during the sacrificial rituals. You could live your whole life and never see money ...
A He's waiting for Jack. He's got no money and he wants a cup of tea.
A ... Edward Skidelsky is another, who argues that liberalism has just about committed suicide. You get more and more wars, more and more degradation, more and more drug-taking ...
A He hit me in three places. Here, here, here.
B Why didn't you —
A I have to look after myself. You won't always be here to look after me.
A ... the Faust that goes 'Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?' ...
A You know what I did the other day?
My red veins.
A One hundred and fifty pounds. I had lumps under my chin, and scabs for three days. I'm going to get her to look over my face and do what's left. But I don't recommend it because it's really painful. Next time, I'm having a facelift.
B A red face. It looks as though you drink a lot now.
A She said 'Are you Irish?', bless her.
B Mine are terrible. I stuck my head over a boiling kettle. I thought it was cleansing.
A I'm not going up there any more. I looked in the mirror the other day and noticed that they'd got a lot worse.
B You should go up to mine. It's in Holborn. Only four stops. But you're not supposed to smoke for 24 hours. I got a huge blister.
A With mine, I had lots and lots of little scabs all over my face. I couldn't go into work, everyone was frightened of me. I didn't mind coming in here.
K My customers, no-one wants them.
They can't afford to go anywhere else.
They go elsewhere, they get chased off.
A Yes, you are a saint. Not dead yet. In charge of sinners.
A Kostas, I got some bad news for you.
K Bad news? Good. What is it?
A I left my money in my jeans and I'm wearing my tracksuit bottoms. I can't afford the food.
K Yesterday you say two coffees. I made them and you don't drink them — you say two teas. I want to make very sure today. I am awake.
A My dad was always giving my mum black eyes.
B Did 'e?
A I shouldn't ever be out with him now. I had twelve years of it.
B Did they put him away?
A Not where I wanted him to go.
A I'll tolerate her existence on this planet just about. I'd rather not be in the same room as her. She has too much authority. See it's so difficult. She just lied to say what she said. I suppose in the Night Shelter I did push him. He was just hurling abuse at me. I thought he was quite crafty 'cause he was goading me rather than doing something himself. That way he got me banned.
A ... and there was this large bird, and it was all covered in shit, and then the Devil came out ...
A ... £119 a week disability living allowance.
B I love sleeping out. It keeps me fit. I sleep in the churchyard.
A Keep the cats and the squirrels out.
B I believe Johnny died. Johnny Harris.
A All died through drink.
B We had Section 3. Six months inside. Broke the fucking door down.
A ... and there were all these apples and strawberries on the wall and they started throwing fruit at me. 3½ pills ...
A And he's a very violent human being. According to
already kicked him round the fucking room.
Paul got his face sm
times this month, once down the Night Shelter. This time, he had two cans
left in the breakfast things. I said don't even think about it. Go and
take your shower. He said to me it's my fault. I know we've had our
moments. He smashed things that were very fucking sentimental to me. He
put a hole in the bathroom door this morning. I didn't want to stay in the
house, but I did so for three fucking years.
B Shall I see whether I can set something up?
A I don't get to see her very often, the only thing is. Trouble is, when he stopped drinkin' to the extent he was drinkin', it was wonderful. He started eatin' every single day. It's not that I feel sorry for him, 'cause I don't. I said to him this morninhg. He keeps asking me to kill 'im. Totally fed up with things. I'm going to do it. Has he been to see you?
B Anyway, Will's OK?
A No, I got to see him Wednesday.
B I'll phone the first thing tomorrow.
A I took two cones down. He was fucking sick all over them. I haven't seen my nephew for months. It's been playing on my fuckin' head. It's like, please don't leave me on my own. Saturday, he sat in there all fuckin' day. I put some socks and trainers on him and made him come out of the fucking flat. He was just sitting there. It's his way of telling me off. 3 o'clock in the morning, he fell out of the bed. Throwin' up. He screamed in his sleep. Doing that a lot recently. The Police have been round Monday.
B When did they come round?
A He only fuckin' hit me.
A He has manic depression.
B What's manic?
A Manic depression's when you get really high.
B High as well as low?
A You get delusions.
B What are delusions?
A When you think you're God, or the Virgin Mary. Christ.
B The new Messiah.
A What does
Easter symbolise? I've forgotten.
B It's when he was killed.
A I thought that was Christmas.
B That's when he was born.
A I've forgotten. I used to do the Outlook classes. Why do they have eggs?
B They fertilise them artificially now.
A Porcelain. Why porcelain?
B They help the chickens lay.
A Who was the Sheldonian Museum named after?
A Who was Sheldon?
B A professor, I suppose.
A He was a surgeon. He operated on my old dad. He was in a coma for two years. Saved his life.
A I hear voices all night. Screaming.
B Worst voices I hear are those ones breaking in my brain. I hear them for hours. They were telling me for three days to walk into town naked. I walked as far as Magdalen Bridge and got picked up. Stark naked, two o'clock in the afternoon.
A Picking your nose and eating it is good for you, it says here. Good for the lungs. Drop it in the rice pudding, then you won't taste it. [Reading article in tabloid]
A There was this horse a few years ago. No Bonds. They tested it for doping. You know what they found? It had had a Mars Bar out of the stable lad's pocket. Silver foil and all. That's what was in its bloodstream. I eat a Mars Bar sometimes. I don't like sweet things, but if it's good for the horse. What's in a Mars Bar?
A Dave, you know when you dance with me every night with my fishnet stockings, I take them to bed and think of you. Take me home and I'll show you.
A Kostas, you got some serviettes please?
B What you need serviettes for?
A To put on my cup.
B Do you use serviettes at home?
A I have a cup and saucer at home. And a bone china.
A You can tell people's characters by the clothes
they wear. You're imperial, the Empress of Russia.
B How come you look so sexy today?
C I'm not, I'm an old age pensioner.
B I got one on the boil.
A Oh God, what a life. Ich bin, du bist, er ist. Make it strong Andy, I need to wake up.
A He's in there for the night. You've got a lodger,
B Boom boom boom.
K No boom boom boom. To boom boom boom you got to eat something. He's still got to read the letters yet.
B Should go behind the bushes opposite.
C Ol' Mary doesn't bother with toilets. Just drops her drawers in the middle of the road.
A I got to be a pensioner. I don't think you will.
A What do you think about this Government then, banning smoking? I reckon we should ban eating as well. It would get rid of those disgusting fat women. Fat old cows everywhere, stuffing themselves with chips all day, never giving any to their kids. So fat they lie on their backs. I bet some of those students lay on their backs for their results, don't they? Chance would be a fine thing.
A Where were you born? The Caribbean?
A Where in Africa? Timbuktu?
B White Man's Grave.
A White Man's Grave?
B Didn't you go to school? You didn't know White Man's Grave?
A A bit. Where's White Man's Grave?
A Where in Africa?
B The whole of Africa. The whole of Africa is White Man's Grave.
A B52s taking off soon.
A What's the time? When it comes midnight, the flood come. Until they find no one to look after them and go back. Return standby. I go on patrol now. Nazi! If you see any of them in the street, hit them with your umbrella. Nazi!
A Sonia Gandhi doesn't speak the language. How would you feel if Greece were ruled by a Turk? Anyway, I was born in Coventry. I'm from the Midlands.
A I can't read that.
B You know Russian shop. Russian shop down there. I get paper every friday. Paper. Sometimes there's something about my city. I see Richter. Earthquake. Shaking. Eight o'clock in the morning. Three miles from my city. Nobody killed.
A He not look me in the face when he talk. He not
give me respect.
B He's English. For him it is different.
A You know, this is the best country in the world. When you make people, they pay other people. So you get paid for the person you make.
A Dobro veche, dobar dan, dobre svichi, Svobodan!
A Most of them are. Most of them.
B Not most, must. I must go now.
A We must finish soon.
B I am here. I. am. here. She is there.
A There are. Eto.
B Here. Tak. Here.
A There. Tak.
B There are. Eto.
A Poniam to. Poniam to.
B He is here.
A She is there. I also there.
B English. All days I am very happy.
A Andy, what happened at the pizza place next oor
Windows broken and police tape round it.
B [low growl] Serbii. Albanes.
A Ne! Black, black!
A Nye é problema.
A Salaam aleikum!
A Thank you Sir, many salaamis!
A My wife's been in Torquay all week, I've been looking after myself.
Old Pete doesn't think I can do it. I've been
B Faggots, faggots? They used to burn witches with those.
A I can't see in these glasses.
B What you got them damn great dark things on for?
A I travel incognito.
B You shouldn't travel incognito — you stand out a mile.
A Don't mind if I move over here, do you? I likes looking straight at the door. You can be more prepared. Imagine it's batwings and suddenly —
A Hello. We've just come back from Devon to see my cousin.
How are you?
B I'm a vampire.
A Are you?
B I've got my fangs out. I suck blood.
A I have this book on the interpretation of dreams. I always look at it when I wake up. Last night I dreamt I was handwashing. Perhaps because of the washing machine breaking down.
A How do you get five elephants into the Excelsior?
B Take out the seats?
A They fly in. They're angel elephants.
A I found a human skull today.
A Blackbird Leys.
B Fighting that goes on up there.
A I don't know whether it was a woman or a man.
B Used to come here with their heads in a jamjar.
B The U.S. Army. Don't know how they did it.
A Have they got any takeaways in Blackbird Leys?
B I wouldn't venture out there — I come up here.
A He was going to murder you.
A Hitler. If he won, he was going to use our skin for shoes.
A I've got a cash box. He took an overdose. So immediately afterwards, I went straight out and bought a lockable box. I keep my medication in it and keep the key, so he can't get at it any more. I had this asthma medicine — purple capsules — and two are enough to kill you. Someone stole it, so I had to go round all the people in Oxford — all the drug dealers and everything — asking whether anyone had them.
A Lay him down on the floor. Don't let him fall.
B He'll come out of it.
C He's gone purple. We'd better get an ambulance.
B The Excelsior. What's the number, Andy? — The Excelsior. 157 Cowley Road.
A One of you go outside and wait for them.
B I don't know who he is. I think he lives round here.
D Come on, under his head.
B Use that jersey. It's spare. This café has things like that.
A He's going to sleep.
D Come on friend, you'll be OK. Can you tell me what day it is?
D What day is it?
A Lasted 7 or 8 minutes. His pulse rate was about 100.
B It's a lot of exercise. He must be fit.
D Come on mate, come with me. Roll his kecks up.
F Can I borrow your oxygen cylinder, mate? Strap it to my back? We're going on a sponsored walk.
A I booked him in with a doctor. I said can you give him some antidepressants. She said basically no, 'cos he's drinking. When I think of the life I could have had and the life I've had. I've actually considered contacting the BBC to do a documentary. You know what PD stands for, don't you? I considered contactin' the BBC to let them know.
A He got paid on Wednesday. He spent 50 quid on a round of drinks. He doesn't know how he spent his money, but he spent 50 quid on a round of drinks. I think it was the Wetherspoons in Cowley Centre.
A When I go to Zombie Centre, see them all breeding.
B That's Cowley Centre, mate. He didn't know what you meant.
J Are you trying to be a professor?
J What are you studying?
B Oh my God, a bloody technocrat. Go and sit in the sin bin.
A Jessica thinks we're going to be the next Microsoft. She comes into the office in the morning in her little suit. She doesn't understand that we're not like that. We set this up so that we didn't work 9 to 5, so that we could go out in the middle of the day and drink coffee.
A I've made my own living since I was seven, and never called any man master. The world's rotten with plunder, all you've got to do is go out and get it. When I get up in the morning, if I've made £150 by the end of the day, I'm happy. Otherwise, I keep grafting until I've made it. I won't get out of bed for less than a couple of hundred quid.
A You alright?
B Mum's done a runner and Frankie's gone off in the other direction with all my money.
A Oh God, you better go. Don't let them get away.
A This tastes crumptious. You know what crumptious means Dad, don't you?
A ¿A la calle hé? ¡No a la calle!
C She couldn't bloody walk a fortnight ago! We'll have to get a lead for her before long.
A ¡Sana! ¡Comer! ¡Hola, buena comida Sana, buena comida!
A You got any milk? Is it warm? Cold milk?
B Try the Indian shop, or maybe Londis.
A I'll get something from Blackbird Leys later.
B They got a shop open? Or she can stay the night with me. You're lovely, aren't you? Very mellow. Two months.
A Andy, if I pay you, can you fill this with milk? I'll give you a pound.
C Sterilise the bloody thing.
A Thank you.
B Here, could you take my photo? I've got a camera in my bag. I'll send it off to my mum and say I had a baby. Yeah, miracle. She won't talk to me again.
A Give 'er here. I got to get 'er home.
A He's just been round for the money and he refused to pay it.
B The shops ought to pay it. They make ten times the business on that day. He ought to open early for the Carnival.
A He had a customer outside and the customer complained and he smashed him on the head with a bottle.
B He's a bad man.
A Can I show you some paintings? [at counter]
A Oil paintings.
Z What am I supposed to do with them?
A Well, you can take a look and if you like art you can ...
Z Have you come to eat that ice-cream in here?
A Would you be interested in some meat? [at counter]
A To buy some meat?
A Kosta del Sol! Kosta lot!
A That crazy girl came in the other day. She had a long gown made of tea-cosy covers all sewn together. Her boyfriend's just the same. She talks and talks. I asked her and she said 'I'm on the tablets but I'm just the same'.
A Andy ought to get money from the NHS for looking after this lot.
A They're stopping my money.
You know why — I've been two months in hospital.
I've been three times to the office.
Water, telephone — that's £200 to pay this week.
B You 'ave to go begging on the street. Show them your leg.
A Phone. Every day a letter come. I can't pay the bill.
A The glasses?
I've got some liquid 've got to spray on mine occasionally.
See, I've got this slight scratch here.
I did drop them down the bog once —
B Fairy Liquid does for mine.
A — not clean, I thought it was this slight summer haze.
A She had polio as a kid. She banged her cranium here. And she told me she'd got Asperger's disease which is the first stage of Alzheimer's.
A They diagnosed me as bipolar affective disorder. They've been jabbing me up the arse with anti-sexism drugs. I've come out the mental hospital, but I'm not going into the Night Shelter. ... I haven't had a bath for four days ... ... I'm living on milk. I don't want to eat now ... I'm still doing the act. That strong-man act? Bobby Bruises. ... Theme is Ancient Rome ... ... Haven't had any work for a while ... ... Ten years ... The Uni has ruined it. Don't get me wrong, I love the students. The students look after me. Get me a pint. I made it my business to know the students. Not to use them, but becaŭse I love them.
A If I wanted to, I could spend about £1000 on beers.
B My head hurts. I want to lie down.
C What the hell were you doing?
B Having violent sex
A Chris: life experience zero.
D 'Basement not for tenant use, except when reading electricity meter.'
E There's a traffic cone in tbe basement, uncle James.
A He's not mad, he's completely insane.
C He's not fully sane.
A This cup of tea is fabulous.
C This is nice toast, isn't it?
A It's not bad toast.
C It has some sort of thickness to it.
A It has innate substance.
D Pass a little bit of toast please.
B Cold shower ... anyone brought any shampoo?
C I haven't brushed it for six months.
A I haven't washed it since June 1998.
B Anyone got a towel?
C I have a T-shirt.
B Can we buy some Paracetamol?
A It's the cheapest and best Lilt I've had.
C I think I might buy another bottle.
A ... God-given right to have sex with your girlfriend ...
B I'm sleeping in your bed.
A Share and share alike.
C This is where Communist Russia fell down — right here.
D On a smaller scale, evidently.
C Do you think the way he had this mark on his head affected his leadership skills?
B ... football ... Paracetamol ...
C ... Kumbaya [sings] ... Suck my balls [sings] ...
A And one of the breakfasts. The egg on toast, and bacon, and orange juice.
K £ 8.20, thank you.
A I'm sorry, I thought it was the table leg. I'm sorry about that.
A Celibate. Is that a vegetable you get from Tesco's?
B You swearing again?
A Work. That's a four letter word.
B Woke up with heavy dew on my chest.
A He liked the legs and shoes.
A Birds of the feathered variety.
B It's a bit of a joke. Birds as in birds and birds as in women.
A How stupid do you have to be not to get a joke like that?
B It's not quite a joke. Ohhh...
A I hate moving in circles where everyone considers it de rigeur to give you a hug whenever you enter or leave.
A This is 80% of your life, coming in here.
It's the opposite of a normal life.
B It's like Jeremy used to come at 8 o'clock in the morning and stayed 'til 8 o'clock at night. It's their life. It's their whole life.
A You should expect them to take an interest. So you feed them false information. It's like the war.
B This is a breeding ground for disaster sometime, this place. I hate people who come here and make out they don't want to get involved, but they —
A What they going to do when it closes?
K Nobody makes any credits in Cowley Road. You know what is credit.
C You accept credit for a week. You know how much it costs? Hundred and fifty quid. Then he doesn't get his wages. No one says you been here too long.
K That one is a troublemaker. I have him twice yesterday. Shouting, swearing. He say, I'm going to get someone to kill you.
B It's their life. They get up in the morning: the first thing they say, Excelsior.
A You don't know what it's like he said, sitting here day after day watching all this human debris go past. It's a dosshouse, not a café.
B Don't expect too much. If you come in, say that to yourself. You'll be OK.
A You got to admit, there's a lot of rubbish in Oxford. There's a lot of rubbish between here and the centre.
C No matches, no tea, no cigarette papers. They come in, take the serviettes for the tables.
A Don't expect too much. You got it in you, we'll bring it up. Go to the Excelsior.
B No credit. In God we trust; all others pay cash. I'd better go upstairs do some toilet work. Where's that fucking Kosta? Remember Bert, don't expect too much. You won't be disappointed.
A I'll have a coffee Kos when you get time me old mate.
K You never say pardon me.
A Well, you don't give me a chance.
K You don't come here to burp like a pig.
A Oink, oink.
A Daniel, I've been here since Wednesday and he ain't served me. I've got a seat in the back now.
K Sorry or not sorry, they get the
If God came down, he'd have to drink the
A You don't give God special coffee?
K He drink the same coffee as the rest of us. Probably I chase Him away.
21st May 2004.