On Monday, Asher and I road the bus down to the city centre for the St. Giles Fair. The main road is completely shut down for two days as the fair comes to town, filling the street with food booths, game booths, and massive flashing, screaming rides. Like so many things in Oxford, this is a fair with a deep history. It has come to Oxford every year since 1625, and is always on the Monday and Tuesday in September following St. Giles’ Day. Supposedly Queen Elizabeth I even visited at one point. Today, it is a child and teenage paradise.
On the way to the fair, Asher pointed out the window to a sign that read, LORRIE ENTRANCE ONLY.
“I learned that word today,” he told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I was in English class, and we were reading a story. The teacher asked us to name the characters in the story. I raised my hand and said, ‘There’s this kid named Lorrie.’
“The teacher leaned forward. ‘What was that?’
“The Lorrie,” I said again. The whole class started laughing.
“‘Asher,’ they said, ‘that’s not a person. That’s a delivery vehicle!’”
We got a good chuckle out of that, and he was such a good sport about it. Oh, the growing pains of learning a new language, even if it’s English.
The bus took us on a massive detour around the fair, dropping us on the street in front of the Sheldonian Theatre and Blackwell’s book shop. The air was filled with smoke and the smell of deep-fried food. There were booths selling fresh donuts dipped in sugar, churros drizzled in chocolate, German sausages, heaps of stir-fried noodles, red candied apples, cardboard tubs of chips with mayonnaise, and buckets of candy floss. Balloon vendors held fistfuls of oversized mylar balloons. The edge of the fair, near the martyrs monument, had mostly food booths and games: basketball shootout, plink the disc with a cork-topped gun, archery, hook-the-duck, knock down the cans, and dozens of others. The kids all know it’s a scam, but the life-sized stuffed animals look so shiny and inviting. Asher tried one game, throwing soft balls into a bucket. Every single one bounced out.
Deeper into the fair, the volume and smoke increased. This was the area of the giant rides with names like Storm and Meteorite and Mamba Zamba—the raised swings, the spurring, whirring madness, the large, crane-type machine that flips people high above the fair, mere feet from the ancient, Oxford buildings that line the street. Our bishop’s family lives on St. Giles, in a flat right behind the fun house. They must get no sleep for three nights in a row.
Lights flashed on every ride. Vendors in the ticket booths shouted into microphones, urging the crowd to get in line, buy a ticket, take the thrill of your life. Star Wars and AC/DC and ABBA and techno all blended together in a miasma of sound. The noise was deafening. I pulled on the hood of my rain jacket and plugged my ears, and still my chest throbbed with the pulse of the bass. The British like their music loud. Asher and I shouted back and forth to each other before retreating again to the quiet end, where he went to a Pick-a-Mix stand and bought a gummy worm 12 inches long.
We met up with friends from church. The boys explored the fair together, riding two different kinds of bumper cars (the second one was much better), checking out the arcades, and tooling around on a few games. We bought donuts that came straight out of the deep fryer and into a white paper sack filled with sugar. They were sweet and slicked with oil and tasted divine. Preston and Addison had come down separately to meet up with friends. We saw them several times, and ran in to many other people we know. Oxford is a small town. The whole of the city seemed to be there, jostling through the crowd.
Asher could have stayed forever, but it was a school night and we still had a bus to catch. We stopped in to Sainsbury for a few liters of milk, which I put in my backpack. I have learned to carry a backpack wherever I go, because there is always a grocery store, and we always need milk. We walked out of the fair and down the quiet side street to the bus. The music and lights throbbed in the distance. In front of Blackwell’s, a friendly chap told us he used to work the fair, setting it up in a single night before it opened on Monday. But it got a little reckless, and there were injuries, so they now take the whole of Sunday to set up, for safety, if not expediency.
Addison and Preston arrived home later, with a surprise. Addison had won a stuffed sea turtle at the basketball toss. It is truly massive, almost as big as Asher. He was so thrilled. He snagged the very last one at the booth by sinking two shots in a row. I have no idea how this turtle is going to fit in our suitcases when we return to the U.S., but for now it swims happily on the carpet in the living room, cheering us all when we see it.
Wednesday morning I went down to city centre early. The fair had finished the night before, packed up, and hauled out of town before first light. There was no trace of the squealing rides, the teaming crowds, the piles of rubbish. St. Giles was back to normal, with bikers and tourists and the storied Eagle and Child pub sitting like a squat observer to the passage of time. Oxford had its city back once again.