Sunday, December 25, 2011

Eating Pie

I was clearing out a box in my cupboard; something caught my eye that ended up being nothing and instead I pulled out a copy of Wired from the mid 1990s. I had it because on the cover was a photo of an old friend of mine, who I discovered had died towards the end of the 1990s. There had been some discussion between the few of us who knew each other back then and still were in contact. Most agreed the picture looked like Shelley, but I was convinced. He had a slightly dodgy and bulbous septum and this was perfectly highlighted in this cover image of something Wired was christening a Zippy - a computer-savvy hippy.

Pulling out the magazine brought back some strange memories of a period of my life that I've often wanted to talk about, but has been breezed over for a number of reasons - the gaps in my memory; some of the things I did and the fact that, at times, it was the most carefree, dangerous and exciting period of my life. I experienced the world in microcosm while I lived in Shenley, Hertfordshire. When I came back to the drudgery of Northampton in July 1982, despite my friends having had all their own adventures, mine just seemed more 'real'. Not surprisingly really as they were my memories and all I had was what I offered - my own stories, probably just as meh as I thought theirs were.

Shelley was one of a gang of people I spent about 18 months being really close friends with. I was the baby of the group and Shelley had held that status before I was bundled into their little group. This little clique consisted of Gerty, Ricky, Rory, Jim, Ruth, Andy, George, and a few others, who I am ashamed to say I've forgotten their names, even if their faces are clear in my head. I joined their loose affiliation almost by accident. I had been the victim of mistaken identity and was about to suffer the consequences...

During the first game of the 1981 FA Cup Final between Spurs and Man Citeh, which ended in a 1-1 draw, someone called Spurs' winger Tony Galvin 'A useless Irish wanker' and it wasn't me. However, at the social club my folks ran there was a huge Irish workforce and this being 1981, there was also a huge number of very anti-British Republicans. A small number were believed to be IRA sympathisers and while I would never know for sure, I wouldn't have been surprised. One of these people believed it was me who had shouted the racist comment, when I believe to this day it was fellow Spurs fan, a guy called Wolfie, who had said it; he was sitting next to me at the time when this chap called Martin took massive offence.

Later that evening, I got invited back to one of the weekly parties in the female nursing home and to be honest, I was a little out of my depth. I was only just 19 and had mainly befriended a few of the first year RMN students; this new bunch of people were 2nd and 3rd year students - they were almost proper Registered Mental Nurses and therefore were considerably more mental than my usual friends. I was sitting, minding my own business, against a wall and drinking a can of Skol when out of nowhere I heard a commotion and saw a fist flying directly at me, which connected with the side of my head and was heightened by the fact I was pressed against the wall of the relatively small room. I just about passed out, but not before I saw a knight in ginger armour. Gerty, who would become one of my best friends of all time and someone I still ache to see at times, despite not having seen him in over 25 years, rugby tackled this owner of the fist - Martin - and they went sprawling over the floor, scattering ashtrays, drugs, beer and people everywhere. I think I blacked out after that, because the next thing I remember was a girl called Gaynor wiping my face with a cool flannel and a bunch of concerned looking nurses standing over me - these were to become the people who would protect me from the big bad Irish Mafia for the next year and become one of the true highlights of my life so far.

Gerty was from Wales, he was built like a shit house rat and was going bald despite only being 2 years older than me. Jim, who I still talk to as he's from Northampton, was tall, wiry and as hard as a bullet; he had and still does have a slightly mad stare, enough to make you back off if you're not 100% sure. Ruth was the tomboy of our pack; with bright red flowing hair and a very butch attitude; she'd hate me for this; she looked after us and we saved her from herself a number of times; she had bad taste in men. Andy was ex-Rhodesian SAS and the first person I ever met who had actually killed a man (I'd like to say he was the only, but he isn't, but he was the only one who hadn't been to prison for it). He was bonkers, but thankfully in a very bizarre way. He had more funny sayings than Imelda Marcos had shoes. I've talked about George before; he was the gay guy who had every hot woman hanging around him. Rory was about 200lbs of solid muscle, was as thick as a brick and was loyal and lovable like that cartoon character who just wanted to hug you and kiss you and be your fwiend. Rory was also Irish and he didn't believe for a second that I could have said anything detrimental; he eventually played peacemaker, despite the fact he struggled to spell his own name. He was also so full of bullshit, we developed an expression whenever he started wandering off into the realms of fantasy. Ricky was from Barbados; we had a token woman, gay and Welshman, we had to have a black guy! Ricky was essentially our drug supplier and next to Gerty this man was probably the closest one I was to. And then there was Shelley, who unlike the others didn't have a definable past. All we knew about him was he'd come into nursing because there was nothing else to do in the north Midlands, where he originated, but hadn't lived in for a few years. Shelley had a closed past and none of us ever tried to get into it.

My relationship with Shelley had never been as easy as it had been with the others; he had liked being the mascot of this little group and when I came along he just moved up the pecking order and I think he struggled with it for a while; but I'm making it sound like we were rivals or something; we got on really well, I just was never in his room as often as I was in others.

One day during the height of summer 1981, we decided to go on a field trip to St Albans, in Gerty's VW Beetle; a bright orange collector's item with CND and bright sunflower stickers all over it. It looked like a hippy mobile. Five of us went to the old Roman town; three of them had proper shopping to do and Shelley and I were left to wander around the town centre and cause mischief. Shelley was a keen badminton player and we were looking in the window of the local sports equipment shop (which has probably been long replaced by a chain store or a Starbucks) and I had a devilishly stupid idea, which I put to Shelley and he squealed like a girl. We walked into the shop, separately and I started browsing the badminton rackets. Shelley was lurking by the football shirts, looking a bit shifty.

Before long a sales assistant wanders over and asks Shelley if he needed any help, but he said he was just looking, so he turned his attention to me. "Can I help you mate?" I was much younger than him.
"Yeah, I'm looking for a Happenklanger badminton racket." A big smile appeared on the salesman's face.
"Never heard of it, mate. Someone's winding you up."
"No. I'm pretty sure they exist."
"No mate; no one called that makes any kind of racquet, now if you'll excuse me," and he makes to the door to show me out!
"Look, I read it in the paper, Happenklanger, I've not got the name wrong, I'm sure of it." The sales assistant was now looking slightly exasperated and annoyed.
"It doesn't exist. There's no such thing as a Happenbangle badminton racket!"
"Did you say Happenklanger?" Asks Shelley. The assistant almost whirled round. "The new carbon fibre rackets that Gillian Gilkes has been testing in Germany?"
"Yes, that's the one. I knew I hadn't misheard it."
"No, there was an article about it in the Express last weekend." The sales assistant is just standing there with his mouth agape. "They're bloody expensive!" Says Shelley and I just shrugged.
"Price isn't an issue; I can spend what I like on a new racket; I play county badminton." With this the assistant changed his entire body shape and instead of being tall and upstanding, he became almost Fagin like.
"Perhaps I can look through our stock books and see if I can order you one?"
"Yeah, why not?" I said, trying desperately not to start corpsing.

He obviously couldn't find one, but filled out a request form, which he assured me, would be sent to head office that evening and if they could get this new Happenklanger badminton racket then they'd move heaven and Earth for me. Was I really a county badminton player? What sort of price was I prepared to go up to? £100? Really? I'm surprised I wasn't offered coffee and a blowjob by the time I walked out and joined Shelley on the pavement where we both burst out laughing and continued to replay the joke between us to the bemusement of Gerty, Ricky and Ruth.

Once they'd finished their shopping, we headed off to a country pub on the outskirts of the town called The Barley Mow, a place which, rather astoundingly served a selection of real ales, despite this being 1981. This was a bad thing, mainly because we all liked a pint or 8 and despite Gert's best intentions, he ended up on the Owd Rodger - an 8% brew that was only served in ½ pints. He decided that half of that mixed with half of a pale ale would suffice and he ended up having five. Back in 1981 the drink driving crusade was well in swing and there were a lot more people willing to defy it then than now. We were young and reckless, so Gerty got behind the wheel and decided to drive us all home. By the time we'd driven a couple of miles, he pulled over and was sick. After the sick came the wanting to curl up in the back of the car and go to sleep for a while to sober up. We had stopped in London Colney and fortunately right in front of a pub. The four of us left Gerty to sleep it off and we headed to the pub for a couple more pints. On return, Gerty was still asleep and not making any moves to suggest he would do anything other than punch the person who woke him. It was now gone 11pm and we were six miles from home.

Now, as you may be aware, classic beetles are essentially like minis but with a bit more headroom. They're not big and squeezing 5 people into one when you're sober isn't a particularly brilliant idea. When you have a monster of a man sprawled over the back seat and four of you left outside, you start to have seriously stupid ideas. By this time we were all very, very, drunk. Shelley devised a plan. Ruth would squeeze into the back with Gerty and put his legs over her. I would sit in the front with slight little Ricky on my lap and Shelley would drive the VW back to the hospital and park it in the social club car park so as to not have to negotiate the front gate of the hospital, where Old Bill sometimes stopped for a chat or used the entrance to park and have a coffee - from a Thermos flask, none of this coffee shop nonsense.

Shelley was blind drunk and somehow managed to get lost and we ended up in Radlett, almost as far away from the hospital as we had originally been. I was falling in and out of sleep, Ruth was chatting in the back to someone, maybe me, and we had to negotiate a very steep hill and a windy road to get to where the car park was. It was now about 1am in the morning and I think Ricky had livened up proceedings with a big spliff, which would just about drive Shelley over the edge - literally and metaphorically. We negotiated the splendid housing of Shenley Hill; the almost 90 degree bend at the golf course and we were just about home and dry, we took the next right hand bend with ease and all that was left was a slow left hand bend and then a final right before the straight to the social club's car park. The slow left should have been easy, but Shelley obviously either shut his eyes and went to sleep or just forgot to turn the steering wheel. We crashed straight into the fence and then through it and onto the golf course. I was suddenly very awake as we drove through a border of trees without crashing into any of them and onto one of the fairways. Shelley looked around startled and then seemed to have a great idea. He pointed into the distance and said, "That's our cricket pavilion, I can drive to that!" And he actually put his foot down. We must have looked like something out of a Herbie film; this bright orange beetle hurtling down one of the nicest fairways you've ever seen. We had just about reached the bottom of the slope when I suddenly had a terrible feeling.
"Shelley! The stream!!" There was a stream which was effectively the dividing line between the golf course and the hospital; except it wasn't so much a stream as a little brook running between a small, and perfectly formed, valley and we were going to hit it doing about 40mph; there was a good chance we would all die.

Shelley hit the breaks, but we were on wet grass, so we just slid for about 100 yards, slowing down, but not enough; we hit the golf side of the ten foot drop doing about 5mph and the car just tottered forwards and fell nose first down the side. The bumper caught on some mud, dug itself in and the momentum we had made the beetle just topple forward onto its roof and wedged perfectly in the gully. It made a unique, post modern bridge. We all toppled into the ceiling; debris flying everywhere and bodies and limbs stuck in all manner of places. I managed to open the door after several attempts and pushing the handle the wrong way and Ricky carefully escaped the mess. I followed him, but not before I fell into the stream - the only one of us who did - and Shelley scrambled out followed by Ruth and a dazed and bemused Gerty, who was just muttering, 'My car' to himself.

All I know is that Shelley launched the keys somewhere and we all headed back to our relevant places of sleep. The most damage done - a cut on the back of Shelley's arm; a sore neck for Ruth and a saturated Phill. We discovered that the police had a call about 2am that morning saying that Gerty had had his car stolen; a simple alibi was constructed - it was never needed - and the police put it down to someone stealing Gerty's car from the car park while he had been down the club and I think that's about all that happened. The car was retrieved, it barely had a scratch on it, but sat in the car park of the social club for weeks before Gerty did anything with it. He had been unconscious for most of the trip, but I think he realised more than all of us how close we came to dying; all he had was his imagination and that can be a frightening thing.

We, of course, never spoke of it again...

I have so many stories from that period of my life; so many adventures and it's hard to believe that it was all condensed into less than eighteen months. I think that's what I miss about being young more than anything - cramming days full of different memories - when 24 hours was an entire universe to play in, instead just a brief tick on the clock as it has become...

The fact that the group I was such a big part of disbanded, went their own ways and some eventually died is just life; but Shelley was one of those guys who did too much in excess and I suppose it caught up with him. He was one of those guys who often got what he wanted - he had the best looking girlfriend of the group and was the early 1980s equivalent of a gadget nerd - which probably explained the cover image on Wired.

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