Closing Time

“As your brother I advise you to drive as quickly as possible to the supermarket.”

It was the first warm day of the year, and Pete’s hand was hovering over the stereo. He was about to subject me to some contemporary culture and I knew it. If this trip was going to succeed, I would need some strong salt and vinegar crisps, a pre-packaged sandwich and more beer than the recommended daily intake suggested by the UK’s chief medical officer.

The situation had begun at the desk the previous day. It was the end of work before the weekend and I was keen to get home and prepare for my first camping trip in almost 20 years. There was probably a list of things that I needed to take with me. But it was Friday night and those things could wait. A colleague approached the desk and said, “who’s going to take me out for a beer?”, my boss demurred and in doing so gently shoved me under the path of the 20 tonne truck we like to call Bob.

Bob’s a lovely fellow, everyone agrees. But a one-on-one session with Bob at the bar can end badly or well depending on your definition. And nine pints later, we agreed that it had gone very well. The world had been set straight on its axis, which actually would be very bad for the world but we didn’t seem to mind. The next morning the world was still spinning, in more ways than one, and suddenly my camping trip seemed more of an ordeal than had originally been indicated.

Luckily my brother was going to be in attendance to convey me to our destination. An inability to drive was clearly indicated, as was not listening to loud electronic remixes of the hit parade. But if I had to acquiesce on one point, it had to be the music. You see Pete can’t drive if he’s not listening to a rhythmic thumping beat. I know, we’ve tried. Britain’s top scientists have looked into the phenomenon and decided that in terms of difficulty to solve it’s up there with the question of what all that ‘dark matter’ is doing. If I were going to face the music, certain situations would have to be dealt with.

We ranged around the supermarket and found everything we needed. The fridge doors in the shop didn’t close automatically, and the fridges were constantly beeping in protest at their poor treatment. I wanted to shout at them, “Evolve, I have seen the future, fridges with automatic closing doors”, but Pete just quietly and considerately closed the doors.

Back in the car we noted that we had managed the incredible speed, thus far on our journey, of less than half a mile an hour. Pete suggested that we might need to increase this speed if we were going to make it to Rob’s in time for the football to start. I had forgotten about this, apparently there was to be a game – televised – for people’s purported entertainment. It didn’t make sense to me, it never has, but Pete insisted he wanted to be present for kick-off.

Our journey was delayed by an accident on a junction, a grim reminder of the ease with which something can turn into nothing. The way things suddenly, and with no indication, can come to an end. We all make a choice, do we mourn the end that’s coming before it’s come or only after it’s gone? It was a sad foreshadowing of our entire endeavour. Our weekend was to celebrate the departure of one of our number. Our cousin Stewart was about to move to New Zealand. It’s not a final departure, but it’s a long way to go. And our relationship will change forever. Our relationship is based on times when we gather the family all around us, bringing everyone together, but also on weekends of loud music and revelry. Something that will be hard to recapture once he has gone to the other side of the world.

I once spent a week in his front room. We watched Wimbledon tennis in the day, and movies in the evening. We averaged seven movies a day for five days. A misspent youth? Or a long hard soak in the prevalent culture of the generations before ours? How can you react to a culture unless you’ve explored it?

So would we mourn his departure before it happened? No, we would not. We’d continue on like normal, living one more weekend without consequences. The consequences will come later, but to think of them now was against the spirit of the thing.

We pulled up to the side of the road outside cousin Rob’s house and found him putting sticks into the ground. Rob said he was trying to protect some plants from an aggressive lawnmower advocate who operated locally. He would mow anything that looked like lawn, even if it was lawn enhanced with flowers. The sticks might do the trick thought Rob, and deter the aggressor from his task.

As we were discussing this, cousin Stewart and Rod (who isn’t a cousin) turned up. Rod is Stew’s best friend from school. They went to the same university together and shared a house there. He’s technically not a cousin but I’ve known him since we were all kids together.

It was time to put drinks in the fridge and for the football to start. Pete and Rob went to the living room to watch a five-nil defeat for Pete’s team. The apparent draw of the beautiful game not having reached myself, Stew or Rod, we set to putting up the tent.

My calling has never been in the so called “physical” end of the spectrum so I immediately seized the instructions and helped as best I could. My dramatic reading of the instructions was immediately praised by the Tony awards panel, but somehow didn’t seem to get the job actually achieved.

There were pegs that had to go into the ground. At one point it seemed to be clear that they were trying to put one tent up inside another tent. All of it seemed wrong to me, not in a “you are doing this wrong” kind of way, but in a fundamental “this can’t be how this works” way. But apparently it was.

In the end the tent was up, and the football was finished and so it was time to go to the pub for dinner. Everyone we had met had said, “oh are you going to the pub in town” and Rob had said, “oh no we’re not going there, we’re going to the pub across the fields”. Everyone had expressed surprise and doubt at this, but Rob had remained confident. “So Rob,” I asked, “how long does it take to get to this pub”? I was wondering about how many beers to carry with us for the journey. “Oh,” he replied, “I don’t know, I’ve never walked there”. I think the panic suddenly must have showed on my face. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I know these woods like the back of my hands”. “I think,” I said, “that is the opening line from the Blair Witch Project”.

We decided to proceed with the plan despite the obvious issues, as we were about to set off, I stuck a couple of cans in my pocket. The cans had been keeping cool outside the house – something that should have alerted us to the obvious temperature issues in relation to our tent-based sleeping arrangements later that evening. The beers were nice and cold, I stuck the two cans of Guinness in my pocket and thought about setting off. Just then it started to drizzle. I then said one of those things that may turn out to be one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever said in my life, “it looks like it’s starting to rain, maybe we should get going so we get there before the rain really takes hold”.

Who is the greater fool, the fool or the fool who follows him? That’s not clear, but what is clear is that we all decided to set off. It seemed like the right thing to do – we had giant umbrellas, and we were walking across fields in a lightning storm – what could possibly go wrong? Maybe it was time for one of us to check out? But luckily it seems Pete, Rob, Stew, Rod and I had a little bit more life on our clocks.

The walk through the woods was fraught with difficulties, chief of which was what to do with our empties. The answer was, it turned out, to store them in branches of felled trees for our return journey as our ancestors had done. Rob assured us that this was the way to behave out in the country and we happily obliged.

By the time we arrived at the pub it had stopped raining, we could have easily avoided walking in the rain, but we would have actually found that less fun. We were there for the experience. We walked into the pub and ordered six pints of experience. There was beer here, it was lovely, other correspondents might be able to tell you what the beer was, but I cannot.

Now we were at the pub it was obvious that if we wanted to enjoy dinner in the style to which we had become accustomed (i.e. having a table) we would need to seek one out. Pete and Rod headed off in one direction finding a low table that was free amongst several sofas. But Stew, Rob and I kept our eye on the prize, a table near the bar with enough room for the five of us.

While we waited for the table, the conversation turned to matters of ancient history, to how things were when we were kids…

We are grown ups now, we must be. Most have kids and look down on the foolishness of children. We like to think of ourselves as perpetual children, but do we really behave that way? We act the fool and we tilt at moments of madness, but could we do anything truly childlike and escape our day to day reality?

My daughter will concoct a world where she seems to really actually believe she is a dog for hours on end and not respond unless we pat her on the head and say, “good doggie”. I admit that the thread of reality is there for her, she knows she isn’t a dog, but – and this is the point – she also doesn’t consider what others might think about her pretending to be a dog. For all our flights of fancy as adults, and how we like to pretend we aren’t grown up, there aren’t many of us who could actually behave like this.

But despite this we loved the time that we were all kids together, and we all pretend to ourselves that we haven’t really grown up. So those days of cricket on the lawn might still happen, the conversations and run-ins with Granddad might happen at any moment. It’s all alive for us in this conversation despite being gone for 25 years.

There’s no foolishness here, I don’t want you to get that impression, these were some of the most important moments for “us” as individuals and for “us” as a group. It’s only fair that we remember them. I know a bit more about some of those moments, because Granddad came and lived with us towards the end, and we talked about this for the first time in that pub. For the first time of the weekend, it seemed like the last time we’d be doing this.

The group of ladies on the ideal table decided that they’d finished nursing the bag of crisps and J20 that they had been passing around for the last hour. We wanted to be polite, but we also wanted to swoop like ravenous vultures. Luckily we have been brought up so that our ravenous vulture swoop looks polite and the ladies actually complement us on it.

We sit and examine the menu, there will be steak, this will happen, but what else? Pete declares that he has stopped eating wheat. Is this one of those fad diet things? He doesn’t seem the sort. He assures us that it isn’t.

He was at work and one of his colleagues mentioned that he couldn’t have a sandwich for lunch. Why not, Pete had asked? His colleague said it was because he wasn’t eating wheat anymore. Why not? Pete asked, some kind of fad diet? No said the colleague, it was because his wife had been complaining about his absolutely killer farts. She had looked something up online about it and found that it might be an allergy to wheat causing the problem. Pete heard this with slack jawed amazement. Pete had previously had terrible reactions to wheat beer. Could this finally be the thing that stopped him from having to declare his whereabouts to NATO in case they misattributed his actions to a chemical weapons attack?

While Pete was telling this story, the attractive barmaid was hovering behind him waiting to take our order. Normally we would have interrupted to speed her night along, but the chance of embarrassing Pete was too good. She cringed every time he said the word “fart”, thus far enhancing the story for us.

We made the decision to switch to wine with dinner, and it was noted by the bar staff. “How are you enjoying your weekend away?” they asked. How did they know we were on a weekend away? They accused us of being a company on a team-building exercise. “Look,” they said, “the boss is ordering this fancy wine and putting it on expenses.” “No that’s just Al.”

We ordered one more bottle to have when we got home and headed off. It was dark now, our torches helped, but drunken exuberance helped even more and the journey passed without incident until Rob needed to pause briefly to, ahem, examine the shrubbery. We carried on walking following Rod’s off road biking GPS that uses the ordinance survey map. When we realised we had lost Rob, we all shined our torches back to check where he was, blinding him. He soon recovered and we headed back, collecting all of the cans we had secreted on the way.

When we got back we sat in Rob’s living room and put on the Jimi Hendrix Experience. We used to live in a world where we aspired to Jimi’s experience, and now had we become parodies of the people we pilloried? Of course we believed we were different, of course we know that we’re not like the people we work with, of course we aren’t becoming “the man”. But look from the outside? Drinking wine and eating fancy steak at the pub. They don’t think of Jimi Hendrix, they think of us as “the man”.

Where did the dream go? Stew is moving to the other side of the world because it feels right. Not because it necessarily makes sense. Is sense the enemy of right? Dark thoughts at 2am. Is it fair to criticise ourselves because we have become what we were destined to be?

The music stops and as we switch to Led Zeppelin, it’s clear that Stew and Rod haven’t made it. They have conked out. A brief respite, and as the music kicks in, Rob and I seem to get our second wind.

Almost at the same time, Stew and Rod wake up, after a bit of bleary eyed questioning of where they are they ask perhaps the most crucial question, where is Pete? He isn’t here anymore. He went to the bathroom, Rob and I remember that, but where next?

He’s found moments later, face-down in Rob’s bed. He said he was going to the loo, he obviously decided not to return. We decide that this is the moment to make our way to the tent outside. This seemingly took an hour.

We actually had to scrape the ice off the outside of the tent as we are getting in. The dew had frozen. I had a inflatable double mattress to sleep on, just as our ancestors did. Everyone else has gone for more traditional tent-based sleeping arrangements.

Pete’s decision, such as it was, to take an early bath in Rob’s bed cost him dearly in the morning. As we woke up with the morning sun, it was clear that his use of a bed made him responsible for the morning tea, coffee and breakfast. I also decided this action would largely make him responsible for driving us home, it seemed clear to me that my driving wasn’t indicated once again.

A chap turned up with a metal detector and wanted to show us what he had found in the neighbouring fields. Why was he here? Maybe Rob knew, but we couldn’t ask.

We ate our breakfast on the pub garden table Rob had in his garden. We talked about our future, our loss as Stewart left. And what the future held for him. He didn’t know, how could he? Better of him to be honest about that then pretend to have the answers. He was off on his adventure.

It started to pour with rain, we went inside. The metal detector man didn’t have to worry because he was eating his breakfast in his car. It was time to go.

The hedonistic weekend had passed, as well as it could. We had enjoyed it. It was excellent to be that free. But we had questioned one of our members’ decision to move to the other side of the world without a plan. We questioned it because we love him and don’t want him to go, but mainly we question it because we have forgotten what being free is really like. While things are changing, he’s not really gone. We will see him, and maybe he will continue to teach us what life is really about?

This article might have wallowed, but the weekend did not. Sometimes it’s important not to think about the whole of your life. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting to celebrate the changes, but don’t spend the last chance you have to enjoy them crying instead of celebrating it.

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