It’s getting hard to talk about anything now, as the two time lords have had a little too much Tardis fuel to drink. They’ve resumed battle, and are getting louder and louder, each denouncing the other’s field, much to everyone else’s embarrassment. George especially is looking red in the face, and looks to be about to faint from shame. The whole restaurant is being forced to listen, and the waiters are nervously hovering, waiting for their moment to rush in and politely ask them to be quiet. Compton, Ren and Walter start chatting again in an attempt to disassociate themselves, and to provide some auditory cover, but their efforts are futile.
Beresford is accusing Hedley of sticking his philosophical oar into areas he doesn’t understand.
‘Leave physics to the physicists,’ Beresford says. ‘You don’t even understand the basics of what’s going on, so your theories have no relevance to anything. You’re embarrassing yourself.’
The audience tenses at this. The argument has left the arena of specifics, and looks like heading into general drunken abuse territory.
Hedley is not fazed. A confident and polished Oxbridge product, he has dealt with plenty of this sort of attitude before from better physicists than Beresford. But he is getting fed up with the man and wishes he would go away. He is also drunker than he realises.
‘What are you playing at, buster?’ he drawls, with effortless contempt. He is winding Sadler up like a master. ‘You come along to another department’s dinner, and insult their profession? Who asked you to come?’
‘It’s not a departmental dinner, it’s the dinner for your talk which was open to all.’
‘The talk was open to all. The dinner wasn’t. It’s a private dinner and you’ve gate-crashed it. I never heard anyone invite you. Do you think a philosopher would dream of inviting himself to a Physics dinner and then spend the dinner insulting the field of Physics?’
‘Wouldn’t worry us,’ shouts Sadler. ‘We could handle him. We’d squash him like a bug!’ Sadler bangs his fist into his palm, perhaps unnecessarily, to illustrate said squashing manoeuvres. ‘I’d tell him to bring it on! Say what you want!’
‘Do you know anything about philosophy of physics? Or even philosophy of science?’ says Hedley. ‘Have you ever read anything in the field, you ignoramus?’
‘Do you know anything about physics?’
‘I have a fucking Physics degree,’ says Hedley.
‘Undergraduate degree. Means nothing. You have a superficial and screwed-up understanding of everything.’
‘I doubt it, I read Physics at Cambridge, not at your department. Whereas you know less about the Philosophy of Physics than my third-year undergraduates. You haven’t even read any David Lewis. But then, my students don’t have the disadvantage you have of being at a second-rate University. I suggest you acquaint yourself with the literature before you go shooting your mouth off.’
‘Please,’ gasps George, who is holding his chest. Ren wonders whether he is going to complain about Hedley’s general insult to Grayvington, an insult which Hedley appears to be unaware he has made. ‘Please could we keep it down and not make it so personal?’
‘You wouldn’t know a fucking Boltzmann equation if I etched into your forehead with a fucking chisel,’ shouts Sadler.
So this is the famous Sadler temper, Ren thinks, that Douglas, via Garrett, has told him about. The two antagonists did not appear to be personally acquainted before today, but Ren wonders whether there is something in Hedley’s past that has made Beresford so hostile. Did he once insult Beresford’s sister? Did Hedley ever stop him getting a grant?
‘Do they let you play with chisels, then?’ says Hedley. ‘Is that what you try to split atoms with here?’
George has his head down on the table; he seems to be having a serious panic attack. The waiters are dumbfounded. They’ve never seen anything like this before. Everyone, the waiters, the cooks, the other customers, even the academics themselves, are now weirdly fascinated by the question that is hovering in front of their mind – what happens when academics lose it with each other? What exactly do they do? Do they just ramp up the academic references? Challenge each other to a fencing duel? Face off on a special edition of University Challenge? Hit each other with theses?
‘What does a philosopher split an atom with?’ yells Beresford, who makes the ominous transition from sitting to standing. ‘A piece of chalk?’
‘Sit down,’ says Hedley, who knows Beresford is close to losing it now.
‘A piece of fucking chalk?’ Beresford bends over to talk more directly to Hedley’s face. ‘You fucking chalky cunt.’
‘Sit down, you great gas giant.’
Beresford picks up a bowl of sweet-and-sour chicken and rice and shoves it across the prone body of George, who appears to be hyperventilating, into Hedley’s face. There are horrified-but-delighted gasps from the whole restaurant. It’s not like a fight in a restaurant never happens, but it’s not supposed to happen between academics. Ren can almost hear the other customers telling their friends tomorrow, ‘No better than animals, they were, those supposed eggheads.’ Which is pretty much what he’ll be telling people too.
Hedley grabs a fistful of prawn crackers and scrunches them on Beresford’s face. Beresford just stands there and takes it, as if to say ‘I’m Hemingway, that all you got?’ Then he quickly and, he hopes, expertly, jabs Hedley in the stomach. He expects this to knock Hedley down and finish the job, but although Hedley is winded, he still manages to walk around the table to pick up a plate of ribs, which he throws at Beresford. He clearly means for the ribs to go all over the larger physicist, but most of them scatter and miss the target. The greasy plate, meanwhile, has slipped out of Hedley’s hand by accident and it cracks Beresford on the forehead, and breaks in two, one half falling onto George, who has deciding that feigning complete unconsciousness is the best policy. Beresford’s head has been sliced, and blood starts seeping out of the wound. Hedley looks annoyed with himself for losing his cool.
‘Well, you brought that on yourself,’ Hedley says. Then, as though realising that a witty retort is what will tip the scales back in his favour, he adds, ‘Physics in action.’ The restaurant is silent. He realises that his line hasn’t quite done the job, so he says, ‘If that’s how you’re going to treat a visiting speaker, I’m off,’ and he stalks out of the restaurant unhindered. The waiters part to let him through.
As he slams the door behind him the restaurant erupts with excitement, anger, and outrage. Ren notices that George is making strange-sounding moans, and it’s him that some of the others are attending to, rather than the gash-headed Beresford, who is in disgrace. Then Ren realises that Hedley has left something important behind.
‘His briefcase,’ he shouts over the tumult. ‘Hedley’s left his briefcase behind.’
Hedley’s train tickets are probably in there, so Ren picks it up and runs out of the restaurant, his unconscious registering some surprise that George has been placed on the floor. He looks around for Hedley, and sees him a long way further off than he expected. Hedley is stalking off determinedly, looking like he is trying to get as far away from the damage as quickly as he can. Ren eventually catches up with him.
‘Hedley,’ he shouts. Hedley ignores him, hoping that he has misheard and that wasn’t his named being called.
‘Hedley. Hedley, you left your briefcase behind,’ Ren says. Once Hedley realises he’s not being chased by the manager, he turns around.
‘Ah, my dear boy, thank you so much. I’d completely forgotten about that in all that commotion with your oaf of a colleague.’
‘I’m sorry about that guy, Hedley. Like you said, he wasn’t one of us, so I wouldn’t call him my colleague. I’m new here, but I’ve already heard stories about him from people I know in Physics. Apparently he does shit like that a lot.’
‘Quite all right, no need to apologise, young man. Are you rushing back to the scene of devastation now at Chase the Dragon? I’m not sure that’s wise, there may be police arriving soon.’
Ren doubts that, but he can’t say he’s very keen to rush back to the restaurant. As organiser, his meal is free, so there’s no need to pay a share of the bill. (Whoever pays for it tonight will be reimbursed by the department.)
‘I need a drink after all that,’ says Hedley. ‘How about we jump in a taxi and go somewhere more salubrious?’
‘Well…’ Ren looks doubtful. Not going back to the restaurant is one thing, but just going off drinking with Hedley seems a bit much. And what was up with George?
‘The drinks will all be on me. As long as you take me somewhere chic.’
‘Well, I can’t really say no to that. C’mon, there’s a taxi rank around the corner from here, I think.’