By Mike Somers
The barman in the absurdly large Stetson stared at me across the row of pumps with an expression of unconcealed scepticism. It was as though I was the punk kid who had just called out the grizzled old gun-hand with the intention of making a name for himself.
"If you're eighteen where's your bar-pass?" was his eventual response to my request for a half of bitter.
Of course, since I was fourteen I didn't have a bar-pass but if I admitted to this then the Marshall of Flookburgh would consider it his bounden duty to bring it to the attention of my pappy - "Beggin' yer pardon, Mr Somers, Sir, but this here boy of your'n has been tryin' to buy hard liquor from the saloon; and I figgered, you bein' temperance an' all..."�
I was beginning to hate this place with its phoney Western ambience and we'd only been here for four hours with a whole week of unbridled holiday pleasure stretching ahead of me.
I patted my pockets with what I considered to look like nonchalance.
"I thought I had it with me but I must have left in the caravan. I'll show it you next time I come in, eh?" I tried to exhibit some sincerity as I lied through my teeth; smiling and nodding affably, but my warmth was having no effect whatsoever on this snake-eyed bushwhacker.
"No chance, sonny," he snarled. "You look about fourteen and if I served you and you turned out to be fourteen the boss'd have my balls for paperweights."
"Well, I suppose I'd better go and get it then." I said displaying a confidence that I didn't honestly feel. The Marshall smirked at me with an equal confidence that he wasn't going to see me again.
"Fair enough, cock, we're open till eleven."
On the way to the door a lad of my own age carrying a glass of coke and a bag of crisps fell in beside me.
"Ye've nae chonce," he said. "Ah tried 'at whin we got here last Saturdy but Wyatt Twerp wudnae hev it: "Ye've tae hev a bar pass" is all ye kin get oot ae him."
I quickly deduced that he was Scottish and was telling me that he had had the same problem trying to buy beer. I affected a quite unrealistic cockiness and said,
"Oh, I'll get a drink all right, don't you fret."
Oh aye. Wull, ye kin get me one in when ye dae." Jock said and veered away towards the TV lounge.
I needed time to think and the inevitable search for our caravan amongst the irregular rank and file of identical caravans provided just that opportunity.
I hadn't even wanted to come on this holiday but being fourteen I wasn't given any choice. I was leaving school next Easter, going out to work for a living as an apprentice electrician but my dad didn't think I was old enough to be trusted to spend a week away on my own. A friend had been going Youth Hostelling for a week in Snowdonia and he had encouraged me to go along, with tales of village pubs where your age was never questioned and an inexhaustible supply of mountain walking crumpet. The old man however would not even consider it. The mountains are dangerous and you're not nearly responsible enough to be allowed out there on your own without adult supervision.
So here I was on another bucket and spade, candyfloss and rock holiday with my parents and two younger sisters. Or at least it would have been like that except for one minor point. We'd always gone to either Scarborough or Rhyl, turns about, but my mother had got onto one of her periodic I'm-sick-of-going-to-the-same-old-places soapboxes and being a great believer in maintaining a stable boat the old man had looked for an alternative.
He found it here, The Ponderosa Holiday Camp.
Yes you may well laugh but this was 1969 and people were neither as worldly wise nor as cynical as they are now, so he fell for it. The brochure showed Sheriff Dan and his deputy dressed in cod western clothes doing various cowboy-type activities: posing with a flaccid lasso dangling round the neck of a bored looking Friesian; posing as gunfighters holding what looked suspiciously like those cheap silver cap pistols you could buy at the toy shop; leading a vacuously beaming child around on a Shetland pony with growth hormone deficiency. The whole place had these fake Western trappings grafted onto what was nothing more than a caravan camp, and a not particularly good one at that. The bar was "Miss Kitty's Saloon"; the concert room was "The Vaudeville Theatre" and the snooker room had a sign over the door saying "Billiards Parlour". Even the toilets were signed "Hombres" and "Senoritas", the fact that these were Spanish words not appearing to cause any continuity problems. For some unfathomable reason my parents found this idea quite jolly and the old man booked us in for a week in one of their "Saratoga De-Luxes", which turned out to have marginally less space in it than the original covered wagons and was even less comfortable.
What the brochure didn't tell you was that the camp was on the southern fringe of the Lake District and public transport was virtually non-existent and we had to take three coach journeys and one train journey before we arrived. The brochure also failed to point out that the camp was miles away from anywhere vaguely civilised, stuck on the tip of a promontory that protruded into Morecambe Bay and twenty minutes walk from the blink-and-you-miss-it village that gave it an address. It would be a very long week if I failed to convince the barman that I was eighteen and get him to serve me. On the other hand if I could buy alcohol what girl could resist me, it could be my passport to passion.
At the caravan my mother was dressing my youngest sister to go out for the evening. She looked up, surprised when I stepped inside.
"I thought you'd gone," she said fatuously.
I had, but I came back," I replied wondering what the articulate people were doing tonight. I shouldn't be here, I should be in the Pen-Y-Gwryd hotel planning the next day's walk.
"Well what are you doing, coming out with us?"
I had a momentary vision of my self sitting round a table with them, drinking coke, joining in the bingo, clapping during the community singing and then coming home at ten-o-clock. A shiver ran down my spine.
"No. I just came back for my pass. I said I'd have a game of snooker with a Scotch lad and they won't let you have the cues and that unless you've got your passes. Where is it?"
"In my handbag with the others," she said without looking up from my sister's shoe buckles.
In her handbag, amidst all the other debris were five passes: two red for under-twelves, a blue one for a twelve-to eighteen and a pair of green ones for adults. I took my blue pass, palmed it and, after checking that her attention was still occupied, I took the green pass with my father's name on it. Plunging them deep into my inside pocket I zipped up my surfer jacket and closed the handbag.
"Right, I'm off. I'll see you later, maybe."
"Behave yourself, Michael, and don't go getting into any trouble."
My mother still talked to me as though I was seven years old, which is, I expect, how she saw me. If I had been nearer she would probably have started tucking in my shirt for me and licking her hand to flatten my hair. Asking if I was wearing a vest and if I'd put clean socks on.
I considered keeping my own card but decided this was asking for trouble. Suppose I was standing at the bar and I accidentally produced the wrong card; the fastest gun in the Westmoreland would have me clean in his sights. No, the best thing was to get rid of it. After all, the old man wouldn't be asked for his bar-pass he generally had no trouble passing for eighteen so I tore mine up into tiny indistinguishable pieces and dropped them into a waste bin by the roadside.
Despite a manifest reluctance the barman honoured my pass. He hadn't seemed sure at first. He'd squinted at the pass then at me - snake eyed under his Stetson - he'd pursed his lips and squinted at the pass again. I half-expected him to hold it up to the light, bite it or pour acid on it but he simply handed it back to me and reached under the bar for a glass that he tossed into the air and caught the right way up.
"Half of bitter, was it? Whose do you want?"
I was going to say my own because I thought he was suggesting that I shared with someone but I realised that he was asking me what type of bitter I wanted. At this point I thought he was trying to catch me out because in my limited experience of pubs you asked for half of bitter and they gave you something that you took on trust was half of bitter. This place was different. The bar was lined with illuminated pumps like a neon boot hill: R.I.P Harp Lager, In Loving Memory of Chester's Mild.
"Younger's," I said as though it was a choice made after years of selective bitter drinking.
"Half of Tartan," Billy the Kid said letting me know that he was on to me. Only apprentices call it Younger's, kid, time-served drinkers call it Tartan.
I tossed a shilling onto the bar and turned away.
"Keep the change, Buddy."
It was about twopence and should give him some idea of how much I thought of him.
My recent acquaintance, the Hibernian pessimist, was goggling at me through the window of the T.V.lounge along with two other lads whom had no doubt been called over to witness me coming back from the bar with a Fanta in my hand and my tail between my legs. I raised my glass to them, winked and took a short pull at my drink then treated them to a grossly exaggerated display of how tasty I found it.
Across the room, by the entrance was the door that led to the "Billiards Parlour". I had been intending to sit in the T.V.Lounge but altered my route. After all, it wouldn't do to be seen sitting with the kids, would it. Two paunchy Geordies were onto the colours and answered my query about how to play next with an instruction that sounded like, "Why, man, ya poot ya nayem doon on the booerd ower thayer."
I was reconsidering the attractions of bingo with my mother when I noticed that the Geordie was pointing towards a small blackboard mounted on the wall with a name written on it in chalk. Ah, you put your name down on the board over there!
I assumed that the name on the board belonged to one of the incumbents who, by now, had returned to their game squinting through the haze of smoke that dribbled from the Woodbines dangling from their lips.
There was a damp cloth on the table by the blackboard and I used it to wipe off the solitary name.
"Eh up," a voice snapped from the gloom in the corner. "What's the score?"
Neither of the Geordies seemed inclined to answer so I peered at the brass scoreboard.
"Forty three plays thirty two, but don't ask me who's winning."
"I don't give a stuff about that, I wanna know why you've wiped me name of the board."
"Oh, sorry, squire. I thought it were one of these lads'. What were it again, I'll put it back."
"Mike.R," the surly voice snapped back.
By this time I was starting to become accustomed to the light in the room, or rather the lack of it and I could just make out the ill-tempered owner of the single letter surname. Although you would never have guessed from his voice he was a little kid, probably my age or slightly younger, with spiky hair and a truculent expression. When I considered how apologetic I'd just been to the belligerent midget it made me really angry and more than a little embarrassed.
"What you gonna do, short arse, play solo or what?" I said walking round the table towards him.
"You want a smack in the gob?"
Not just argumentative but aggressive with it. Terrific! Here I am, stuck on a caravan site on the margins of the civilised world and the only person to play snooker with is Rumplestiltskin's twin brother.
"All right, don't foam. I only want to know if you've got a partner, 'cause if you've not I'll play you."
He hooded his brows and scowled at me from beneath them.
"All right, " he said finally, "but if you call me short-arse again I'll duff you over, right?"
So we had our game of snooker and on balance I thought the best tactic was to let him win. There was no point in antagonising the little bugger and he didn't strike me as a particularly good loser. He was actually not a bad player for someone who had to stand on tiptoe to take most of his shots and up to now he was the nearest I'd come to making friends if you discounted the jock with the drink problem. If I didn't get to do anything else this week at least I could have a few games of snooker. As I say, I let him win just to pour oil on troubled waters but as it happened it might have been better if he had been a little more volatile.
The arrangement was that you left a deposit of ten bob at the bar in return for which the barman gave you two aluminium cues and the cue ball. If someone was waiting for the game after you then they gave you the ten bob and they got it back from the barman when they'd finished. Unless someone was waiting for a game after them�well you get the idea. So we'd given the Geordies five bob each for the cues and the ball.
While we were playing two lads had come in and written their names on the blackboard. One was wearing a sleeveless denim jacket and sunglasses, which I thought was pushing it a bit given that it was night time, we were indoors and the only light in the room was over the snooker table. I half expected him to keep bumping into the furniture but he was obviously well practised in moving around in eclipse conditions.
His mate was dressed similarly but wore his sleeveless denim over a leather jacket and was minus the sunglasses. They both wore their hair thick with Brylcreem swept back over their ears. Greasers, I hated them. I fancied myself as a Mod except that I wasn't allowed to wear the clothes because my dad reckoned that was asking for trouble. Well, inflammatory was the word he used but I looked it up in the dictionary. So I was a sort of conceptual Mod who didn't dress like a Mod, didn't sport the haircut and couldn't ride a scooter if his life depended on it. If the truth were told the only reason I saw myself as a Mod was because they had the best looking girls. So much for youth culture.
Despite this fragile, and largely superficial, allegiance I regarded Greasers as my mortal enemies.
When the black finally dropped into the pocket and Mike R. had won by a convincing though contrived margin the one who appeared to have misplaced his guide dog held out his hand and asked me for the cues. Did I say asked?
"Give us the sticks," he mumbled holding my eye with his flat, black gaze.
I wanted to ask him whether he would prefer a white one but bit my lip. I wasn't sure if he was as tough as his attitude implied but I was certain of one thing. If he was and he took a dislike to us this camp was small place to try to avoid someone for a week. It wasn't quite that simple though. We still had to recoup our deposit for the cues and although the sensible answer would be to return them to the bar and let Doc Holiday Camp explain the procedure there was one problem. They were between the door and us and didn't seem inclined to let us pass.
Mike, whilst I had been mulling these points over had been attempting to explain the deposit arrangement but perhaps their complexities were what had irritated our leather clad friends; or more likely they were reluctant to part with any cash
"I don't give a stuff about that," Leather Jacket said," just give us them sticks!"
All the switches were tripping in my brain as I tried to work out how I could get past them, through the door and into the relative safety of the bar. Mike on the other hand had decided to adopt the more direct approach. He reversed his grip on the cue, holding it by its thinner, tapered end.
"I'll give it yer in a minute; I'll wrap it round yer bleedin' neck!"
The whistling sound I could hear was the chance of a non-violent resolution to this racing away into the distance. It would end in bloodshed all right, the only question was whose blood would be shed and I was going to make sure it wasn't mine. I reversed my own grip on the cue, brandished it and curled my mouth into a defiant sneer that was less a sign of defiance than an attempt to stop my lips from quivering too obviously. It was impossible to read what was going on in Sunglasses' mind behind his darkened windows but I realised that with the light over the table to my back he could probably see very little of my face either.
"You heard, grease ball, now get out of the road before you get hammered." Obviously the verbal cut and thrust with the barman earlier had sharpened me up because I sounded convincing even if I didn't feel it.
Leather Jacket reached to his left and lifted a Guinness bottle off the table recently occupied by the two Geordies and waved it in our direction.
You wanna rumble?" he muttered obviously seeing himself as James Dean or Marlon Brando or something - What are you rebelling against, Johnny? Whattya got?.
If this were a western movie the sheriff would appear just before the shooting started.
"Now what's going on here, boys?
"Why nothin', sheriff, we's just havin' us a friendly four-hand here."
"Well see to it that's all you boys do or I'll have to make you check your Guinness bottles at my office when you ride into town Saturday nights."
Then, without so much as a jangle of spurs or an Ennio Morricone theme tune the door opened and the barman appeared at the door. He'd obviously seen what was going on through the large window that looked out into the bar lounge and decided to intervene before it got out of control.
"All right, what's going on?"
Of course the easiest way would have been to tell him the truth but you just don't do that, do you. It's like at school, you never grass to the teachers because they're the enemy, and a bigger enemy than the gorilla who's giving you a hard time. Besides if I started whinging to him that Leather Jacket and Sunglasses were picking on us then I had little or no chance of getting served with beer again because he'd have me pegged as a kid. So I took the other route.
"No trouble, mate, I was just explaining to these two about the deposit and how if they give us the ten bob they'll get it back off you when they've finished. Isn't that right."
I could tell he didn't believe me but he just said,
"Aye, that's right." and looked at them pointedly.
Now Sunglasses was quite obviously unhappy with this but there wasn't a lot he could do about it. If he argued then the barman would want to know what had been going on and thinking on his toes didn't strike me as being one of his strong points. He took out a ten-shilling note and passed it across to me, took the cue and walked past me muttering "We'll see you two again" as he did so.
"Not if I see you first, you ugly twat," I whispered back to him and then said out loud. "Cheers, mate, have a good game."
Outside in the bar lounge Mike jabbed his palm at me.
"Where's me five bob," he said.
"Give us a chance, bloody hell. Here." I dropped a couple of half-crowns into his hand. "Fancy some chips?"
He shrugged and looked around the room.
"Listen, it might be an idea if we stick together in case they come looking for us. At least that way it's one onto one."
It occurred to me to point out that it was the least he could do since it was him that had started the rough stuff.
" S'pose so," he said eventually, shoved his hands into his pockets and headed down the corridor towards the entrance.
Predictably the small caf� and take-away was called "The Chuck Wagon" and was down a short corridor at right angles to the entrance. There were no customers just two girls behind the counter chatting and the nearest to us turned as we made our way towards the counter. She was gorgeous. Long straight blonde hair, bright blue eyes, a lovely inviting smile.
She'd taken the words right out of my mouth.
She wore a badge that identified her as Cheryl.
"Bag of chips, please, Cheryl." I said and smiled at her.
"Me an' all," Mike said curtly.
After applying salt and vinegar she asked, "Eat in or out?"
"Out," Mike said.
"I thought we were taking 'em out."
I stared at him trying to give him the message and said, "No we'll eat them in here."
Judging by the smile I received from Cheryl she had got the message even if he hadn't.
We sat at a table in the corner of the room and I watched the two girls have a conversation that seemed to involve a lot of whispering and glancing over their shoulders.
"She's all right.," I said and Mike looked across at the two girls.
"Which one?" he asked.
Since Cheryl's mate was somewhere short of impressive I thought he was winding me up but he looked suitable puzzled as he stared across at them.
"The nice looking one of course."
"Oh, aye," was all he could manage. " Look, I'm off. I'm fed up of sitting here. Are you coming or what?"
It struck me that while the lovely Cheryl was working there was little chance of us getting together so I finished my chips and we made to leave. As we passed the counter I said, "What time do you finish?"
Cheryl gave her mate a cryptic glance and giggled.
"About twelve, why?"
"You stay in one of the caravans, do you?"
"No I live in the village�"
"Me dad comes to pick me up."
Just as well really because I didn't fancy the two mile round trip along that unlit road.
"Might see you later then." I said and gave her my coolest smile.
The "Billiards Parlour" was empty when we passed. The Scottish lad and his mate had taken the place of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and they waved us into the room for a fourhand.
After the snooker we returned to the television room and talked about the moon landing later that week and whether the bar would stay open into the early hours so we could watch it live. The two jocks made valiant attempts to get me to buy beer for them but I refused. "Wait until he gets used to serving me in a few days, then I'll see what I can do." By the time we were thrown out into the warm July night Cheryl had slipped my mind but as we walked across the car park in front of the club she was getting into a battered Transit van. As it pulled away the van crossed our path and she smiled and gave me a little wave. Right, tomorrow then.
We arranged to meet on a scrappy swing park close to reception the next day. Me and my namesake that is, not me and Cheryl unfortunately. The two jocks, who were called Andy and Bobby, were supposed to be there but they were both no shows. Ah well, if you can't take your Tizer you shouldn't be out supping as my old granddad used to say. When I arrived Mike was already there, accompanied by a couple of scrawny looking girls about fourteen years old. I nodded at the nearest one as I sat down but she just scowled at me. Her and Mike were obviously a match made in heaven. I looked at her friend who was busy studying her shoes and clearly unwilling to get involved.
"What's the score?" I asked.
Mike pointed off into the distance.
"We were goin' to go down the beach," he said.
"You were you mean," the cheerful girl said spoiling for a fight. "I've been, last night. It were crap. There's nothing there except for a load of mud."
"Funny that," I said. "The brochure said there were "miles of golden sand", they mustn't have painted it this year."
They all looked at me as if I was insane.
"That's not what it means, yer daft get."
I could tell from her expression that she was not even on nodding acquaintance with satire so I gestured to Mike with my head.
"Here a minute."
Off to one side I smiled at his counterpart and leaned in to whisper to him.
"Can we lose these two?"
I examined his face for the vaguest suggestion that his answer might have had the slightest tinge of irony but found nothing.
I returned to the swings and sat down alongside the quiet one.
"All right?" I said.
"No, I'm fuckin' not. I'm fed up of just sittin' here doin' nowt."
I nodded and looked back at Mike gesturing with my eyes.
"Fancy a game of snooker?"
"After," he said.
So we sat there gently swinging back and to in silence. My parents had taken my sisters out for the day, the old man had some idea about going for a sail on Windermere so they'd set off walking to the village about an hour ago. They might be nearly there by now with the assistance of a stiff tail wind. I looked around me at my companions and suddenly a long walk seemed so much more attractive than it had at breakfast.
I was on the verge of simply sliding silently away when a gang of lads who had been crossing the car park suddenly made a detour in our direction. I sat my ground, there allegedly being safety in numbers; if they decided to kick off my gang could always bore them into submission. They were clearly heading right for us and the leader called over as he approached.
"I wanna a word with you," he said pointing.
Oh shit, this was turning into a nightmare.
"Not you, him," he said pointing at Mike. "Me mam's goin' spare back there. You just pissed off an' never said where you were goin'."
"Here," my mate replied with his characteristic simplicity.
"Don't be a cheeky get," he said calmly. "I've had to waste my time and come lookin' for you. Be sure an' be back for your dinner at twelve."
"You can't tell me what to do, you're only me brother."
"Be told," he said and turned away giving me a curt nod and a "see ya" as he did.
It was difficult to believe that Mike and Danny, as I later found his name to be, were brothers. Not only did they bear absolutely no facial resemblance to each other but in most ways they were complete opposites. Mike was short Danny tall, Mike was untidy Danny smart, Mike was truculent and argumentative whilst Danny was cool and most significantly Danny was a good-looking lad whereas Mike was, to put it bluntly, an ugly little bastard. It was clear from the arrangement of his group that Danny was the acknowledged leader. They had stood to one side during his conversation with Mike and hadn't moved until Danny had rejoined them when they had flowed away in his wake disappearing into the club. I watched them vanish around the side of the clubhouse and mused for a second that I had probably hitched my wagon to the wrong carnival.
"So. What we doing then?" I asked turning back to my own little group only to be met with a fine demonstration of synchronised shrugging.
I left Mike to it. It would be tough decision for him, which of the two lovelies to ditch but I was sure he was up to the task.
The Chuck Wagon was open, yippe-ki-yea, but when I sauntered inside wearing my finest mean and moody expression there was no sign of Cheryl or her mate for that matter. In fact, there was no sign of anyone, the place was empty. At least it seemed that way until a short chubby guy stood up suddenly from behind the counter. He wore a forage cap with the union cavalry insignia on it and a bootlace tie threaded through a silver, longhorn cow's head. For some reason he clearly felt that this didn't jar violently with the batter-stained white coat he was wearing
"Well, howdy, and what can I get for you, pardner?" he asked in a broad Lancashire accent.
The authenticity of this place was staggering. You almost expected to step outside and come across John Wayne and Gary Cooper sitting round the campfire tucking into their cornish-pastie and chips from polystyrene trays and passing a bottle of Irn Bru between them.
"I've not made me mind up yet," I said and stared blankly at the price list on the wall above the friers. Wishbone turned his attention back to emptying buckets of chips squealing into the hot fat while I attempted to peer into the back room for a sight of Cheryl. He swirled the chips round in the bubbling dripping with a large mesh basket then threw half a dozen saveloys in after them. His glance in my direction was met by an uncertain shrug and he began dipping raw fish into a bath of creamy batter before laying them in the second frier. When he turned back to me and I was still studying the price list he said,
I looked behind me thinking he was addressing someone who'd just come in but we were alone.
"You what?" I said
"That's when the girls come on. Five-o-clock. I s'pose that's what you came in here for since you've been standing there with yer gob open for the last five minutes looking like summat that's flapping about on Fleetwood dock. So if you've no mind to buy anything yer can clear off."
For no reason I can explain I kept up the pretence that I was actually there to buy something and finally ordered the "Prairie Brunch" which was basically eggs, bacon, sausage and beans. The whole thing was nauseating and was presumably so called because it tasted like buffalo shit. If this had been the stuff the cowboys had actually eaten then the Indians would have made a better job of managing them. After all it's difficult to shoot straight when you're sitting in a bush with your chaps round your ankles. I left the grease-sodden mass on the plate and made to leave the room when George Armstrong Custer came out of the back room. He touched the peak of his forage cap and said "Vay con Dios, amigo" as they do in Ulverston.
The snooker room was empty and the two jocks weren't in their customary position at the rear of the TV room. I crossed the bar room and nodded at the barman who just pushed back the brim of his stetson with his index finger leaned on the bar and gave me one of those I've-got-your-number expressions. His eyes tracked me across the room and I could feel them burning between my shoulder blades as I pushed my way through a couple of saloon doors. On the far side of the doors was a long narrow room with tables ranged down either side of a polished wooden floor. At the opposite end of the room was a small, low stage on which were set a row of amplifiers, an electric piano and a set of drums emblazoned with letters of fire that read "The Sixty-Niners". Given the recurrent western motif I took this to be a reference to the California Gold Rush rather than signifying a fondness for oral sex, although glancing around the room it could have been the average age of the audience. Despite the absence of the band, who I was willing to bet good money would play Country and Western in unconvincing mid-Atlantic accents, half a dozen couples were gliding across the dance floor in that completely detached manner that ballroom dancers have of staring at something invisible about three feet behind their partner. The music, some bland Mantovani string piece, could only be coming from a juke box to one side of the doors that I had just entered through. In the vain hope that it might have something a little later than Elvis Presley on its menu I sauntered across and leaned over to squint againgst the harsh white light of its interior.
Not a chance. A quick scan down the menu produced nobody who didn't croon in a dinner jacket. Today was shaping up to be a real disaster when I stood upright and it went downhill rapidly. Facing me across the back of the jukebox were our two leather jacketed acquaintances from the night before.
"Hey up," Sunglasses said with a sneer, "look who it isn't."
What a classic line!
Look who it isn't.
Well, Georgie Best, Neil Armstrong, Pope John XXIII and several billion other people are who it isn't.
I considered saying this but decided against it when I noticed their sneering grins and saw the way that Sunglasses smacked his clench fist into his open palm in that way that really unimaginative people think looks tough and threatening. On the other hand whilst I might outnumber them mentally, numerically they had the edge. Under the circumstances sarcasm didn't seem a particularly effective way of restoring diplomatic relations. So it was plan B then.
It occurred to me that I might try explaining that I didn't want any trouble but that would be such a statement of the blindingly obvious that they might see it as patronising��assuming they could see anything through those sunglasses.
I really would have to stop doing that.
No. I had to buy some time to think and the first step would be to get myself out of here and into the bar under the watchful eye of Deputy Dawg.
"Com'on," Sunglasses said, "say summat funny."
Needless to say I declined his gracious offer and just stood there staring at him tight-lipped, the first line of defence of the paddle-free, shooting shit rapids.
"Yer not so lippy now are yer, smart arse? Not now yer on yer own?"
I looked over his shoulder at the doorway into the bar where a pensioner was pushing through the swing doors carrying a couple of pints.
"Yer all right, mate, there's no trouble here." I said raising both my hands palms outwards.
My two leather-clad friends wheeled around expecting to see the sheriff drawing down on them, his trigger-finger twitching and sweat running down his face in true Sergio Leone style. And as they turned I took off in the opposite direction heading for the corresponding exit on the other side of the room.
I burst through the swinging doors and found myself alongside the bar where I slid to a halt and dug some money from my jeans pocket.
"Half of tartan," I said smiling ingenuously.
Seconds later the doors to the dance hall slammed open again and the two greasers exploded into the bar. They were stopped dead in their tracks by a warning glare from the barman and took their places on either side of me. He slopped the foaming glass down on the bar in front of me took my shilling and said to Sunglasses, "Yes, pal?"
"A Pint of Guinness and a pint of Blue Bass," he said never taking his eyes off me.
"I want ter see yer bar passes. No passes, no beer."
Sunglasses didn't appear keen to argue.
"All right, give us two bottles of Coke then."
When the barman had moved away Sunglasses leaned in to me and whispered,
"You're dead, mush. Just you wait."
The barman returned handed me a penny and pushed two bottles of Coke across the bar. They both had straws jutting from the neck and I unsuccessfully tried to stifle a laugh.
Sunglasses counted out the change and threw it onto the bar towel waiting until the barman took the coins away to the till before he leaned in to me and hissed. "We'll see you outside."
I made the beer last to give them time to disappear but after I'd been swilling the dregs around the bottom of the glass for a good fifteen minutes the barman appeared in front of me and gave me a hard stare.
"You want another?"
"I'm all right for a minute yet," I answered and gestured with my eyes at the ring of foam that lay round the bottom of the glass like a tide mark.
He lifted the glass from my grip and tossed it into the sink below the bar top, leaned across towards me and cleared his throat. I was expecting him to give me some philosophical or practical advice. You know the sort of thing grizzled old gun hands give to hot-headed youngsters to keep them out of trouble, like Yul Brynner with Horst Bucholtz in the Magnificent 7.
He looked me dead in the eye.
"Look, sonny, this is a bar not a bloody waiting room. If you're not supping you'd best be on yer way."
I thought about buying another drink but decided that would be just postponing the inevitable and besides if I carried on at this rate I'd be legless when the old man got home and that would just be another problem to be solved. No, there was no way round it, I would just have to bite the bullet and leave.
Outside the sun was blazing but I skulked in the gloom just inside the doorway to the club, from where I could see the two greasers.
Leather Jacket was pacing up and down, periodically swigging at his coke bottle and glancing towards the doorway.
Sunglasses was sitting on a rustic bench against the wall watching a fly scuttle up the wooden post that supported the canopy jutting from the roof. He poured the last drops of Coke into his mouth then carefully brought the bottle to bear on the fly trapping it inside the neck in a single sudden movement. He slid his thumb over the mouth of the bottle trapping the fly inside the bottle then began shaking it furiously. Judging by his inane giggling he found the whole exercise side-splittingly amusing. There were club- comics who would pay this moron to sit in their audience.
It was obvious that there was no way out through the front door, at least until they were tired of waiting or came inside looking for me. There had to be another exit somewhere, a fire exit even.
I was halfway along the passageway back to the barroom when the collar of my jacket was yanked backwards and I was almost deposited on my rear end.
Sunglasses, who had grabbed me from behind, found this almost as amusing as bottling up the fly and began shaking me backwards and forwards giving me no chance to catch my balance. Leather Jacket moved around to face him, laying his empty coke bottle on a nearby table to free his hands, and they began shoving me back and to between them like a couple of B-movie bullies. As each of them grabbed my jacket and spun me around he would tell me what was going to happen to me when they had tired of their ice-breaker, party game. "You're dead." " I'm gonna kick your teeth so far down your throat you'll have to stick a toothbrush up yer arse to brush 'em." You must know the kind of thing I mean after all bully-boys everywhere work to the same.tediously uninventive script.
Actually, in a curious way this was all in keeping with the western motif. A sort of barn dancing with violence - kick your partner, dosey-do.
I stumbled as Sunglasses forgot to let go of my sleeve and instead of spinning across into Leather Jacket's waiting arms I teetered sideways into a table and as I fought to control my dizziness there was Leather Jacket's discarded coke bottle begging me to pick it up.
I snatched it up by the neck and backed against the wall waving it at them menacingly. At least I thought I was menacing and initially I thought I'd succeeded in frightening them but then they started sniggering and feinting attacks. Either they were too stupid to realise the damage that a broken bottle can do to your face or they didn't believe that I was prepared to use it and I knew where the smart money was. That's the real problem with pulling some kind of weapon, if you're not prepared to use it you've just dug yourself into a deeper hole than when you were unarmed. What's more if you don't use it the Neanderthal you've just threatened is going to be so enraged by your effrontery that he's likely to take the weapon away from you and use it against you. Multiply this by a factor of two and you'll find yourself exactly where I was at that moment. Standing upright from the crouching position I had assumed I held my hands up, palms out and said "Hold up, hold up a minute. Listen."
For some reason I couldn't fathom they did. They backed off and stared at me.
"What?" Sunglasses said through his sneer. "Don't think yer gonna run for it 'cause we'll have yer before yer get through the door."
Through the door into the barroom I could see a table covered in empty glasses. I looked back at the greasers.
"When you're gonna hammer someone, hammer 'em. Don't try and talk 'em to death."
And I lobbed the bottle through the doorway and into the mass of glasses on the tabletop, which shattered in a spray of shards and scream of noise.
"I'd get going if I was you, that's your coke bottle that just did that."
As the sheriff crashed through the door and into the passageway the greasers were running through the outer door and I was walking towards the bar with an expression of unassailable innocence on my face. He took the scene at its face value and set off in pursuit of them and after a second or two I u-turned and headed across the camp to our caravan. It might be an idea to lay low until the dust had settled.
I had time for some deep reflection that afternoon. My parents and sisters didn't arrive back until gone five and that gave me ample opportunity to mull over the options that were open to me; carefully considering the pros and cons of each and the potential consequences before coming to a reasoned decision. The process actually took up around twenty minutes and the rest of the afternoon was devoted to peering through the closed curtains wondering when the savages would swoop down, whooping and encircle the wagon. Still, that's what holidays are supposed to be about, relaxing. The decision that I eventually came to was that the situation had escalated to such a level there was only one way of preventing it from running out of control and that was to confront it head on. It wouldn't be easy but sometimes that's the way things are, ugly, difficult and unpleasant. Having said that it's sometimes the case that there are occasions when a guy has no alternative other than to pursue the requisite course of action that is dictated by the prevailing circumstances. Or, put more succinctly, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
At around seven I made my way back to the club by a circuitous route dodging from the cover of one caravan to the next and scuttling across open ground into the next patch of shadow. All that was needed was the dum-ti-dum of Do not forsake me, oh my darling and you would have sworn that it was Gary Cooper on the way to his meeting with destiny.
I found Mike watching a game of snooker and briefly explained what I had in mind. He responded with characteristic enthusiasm, which is to say he shrugged his shoulders and muttered, "Aye go on then."
Bobby was sitting in the TV lounge and asked me to get him half a bitter as soon as I passed through the door. I said that I might on the condition that he listened to what I had to say. His face lit up when I went over what I intended to do.
"Ah've seen thae two. Foncy theirselves as real haird men, so they do. An' whit's moor ah hate greasers, the filthy, scruffy bastirts. Oh aye, it'll be a pleasure, coont me in��I still want that drink though, y'unnerstond?"
I looked over at Mike, smiled and raised three fingers just as Andy joined us.
"Whit's happenin' lads?"
"The big yin here wints us tae back him up when he goes fer thae two greasers, ye ken thae two ugly bastirts that were playin' snooker last night. Are ye in 'cause theers a pint in it fer ye if ye are?"
"There's a half in it, I can't stretch to a pint each."
"A half, eh?" Andy said raising his eyebrows. "Aye, well, that'll dae fer me."
I raised four fingers to Mike and got to my feet.
"We need more people, come on let's go."
The four of us trooped through the bar and into the dance hall scanning the room from the swing doors. At a table against the side wall my parents were watching my sisters' attempts at dancing to a Frank Sinatra record. The old man spotted me and called me over.
"Who are they?" he asked indicating my posse.
"Just some mates, we're looking for someone."
"Who are you looking for?"
"Oh�..just a couple of mates."
"Well behave yourself, you know what I think about gangs."
I wanted to point out to him that four people hardly constituted a gang, a bus queue perhaps but certainly not a threat to law, order and the fabric of western civilisation, but decided that would take up valuable time.
"Don't worry, I will"
The old man gave me a sceptical look and waved me away turning back to his Guinness.
Crossing the dance floor I noticed that Mike had disappeared leaving Bobby and Andy waiting for me. Then, as I approached, he emerged from the bar and gesturing over his shoulder with a nod of his head he held up six fingers. That was a relief, with any luck his brother and one of his mates had thrown in with us. But sadly no, fate was waiting just around the corner to kick me in the testicles yet again.
Through the swing doors Mike's two lady friends from the playground were waiting.
"He says you'll buy us a drink if we come with yer. Is that right?"
I tried to imagine how Mike had sold them the idea in a way that made them so eager to join us;
- How do you fancy helpin' us out tonight girls?
- Doin' what?
- We've just got to sort out these two thugs. They're about this big an' think nothin' of using bottles, snooker cues or anythin' else they can put their hands on as weapons.
- Oh, I don't think so. After all I wouldn't want to do anythin' that jeopardised my chances of modelling for the Pirelli calendar next summer.
- There's a coke in it for you.
- All right, you've talked us into it, you silver-tongued charmer.
For some reason I wasn't able to fathom, possibly desperation, I just nodded and set off across the room trailing the motley band in my wake. I can only speculate that on an unconscious level because I didn't really see them as feminine I thought the greasers might not either and in poor light might mistake them for wiry street fighters.
It was clear that the greasers wouldn't be coming to the club tonight, by this late hour the sheriff would have put a bounty on their heads after the glass incident, so we would have to go out and look for them. Outside the sun was falling towards the horizon casting its red light over everything and in the fierce bloody glow we ranged across the camp rowdy with bravado, the two jocks relating tales of razor fights on the streets of Maryhill and even the girls coming to a pale kind of life with what passed for excitement. Mike said nothing, possibly deep in thought but equally possibly not particularly alert to what might be about to happen, and I just ranged across the landscape with my eyes hoping that I would see the greasers before they saw us.
And there they were, sitting on the swings pulling on bottles of Coke.
"Right, Mike, here by me. The rest of you spread out behind us, make it look like there's a right mob of us."
We approached slowly and as they recognised us the Easy Riders slid from the seats of the swings and moved to meet us hefting their bottles.
"Right, you two," I snarled jabbing my index finger in their direction," this stops right here, right now. If yer don't leave it out yer gonna get hammered, right?
Sunglasses grinned and I couldn't help wondering why I'd ever thought this was going to work.
"We're gonna get hammered?" Leather Jacket said incredulously. "By you two weedy gets?"
"No, by all of us," I said and turned sweeping my hand around to indicate a wide open arc of empty space where the lynch mob had been standing before they had mysteriously melted away. By this time desperation was settling leadenly into my stomach and I tried the only stroke I could bring to mind at that point.
"And them lot behind you," I said and pointed over their shoulders.
Neither looked around and I was aware that my limited repertoire of psychological warfare was beginning to look a little hackneyed.
"Fair enough," Sunglasses said. "We'll sort out them behind us when we've finished wi' you two fairies."
"Oh shit!," I muttered under my breath then I grabbed Mike's arm and yanked him sideways. "Run fer it!"
I had the edge on them in the sense that I had plenty of practice at running away and I was given extra incentive by the half-empty coke bottle that whistled past my head. Having said that no amount of jinking between the rows of caravans could open up the distance between us, in fact the fleeting glimpses I had of them over my shoulder suggested that they were actually gaining on us and slowly closing the gap. Not being the sporty type the opening sprint had almost drained my limited reserves of energy and at that moment I was running on fumes. I needed to stop and regain my wind without the fear that they would jump in and kick ten shades of shite out of us and I reluctantly came round to the conclusion that the only safe place left open to us was the bar. It was the only spot in this characterless wasteland of carbon-copy tin boxes that was easy to identify since it was big, gaudily lit and throbbing with noise and we headed straight for it. The greasers must have realised where we were heading and shouted abuse after us. Mike threw a two-fingered gesture over his shoulder and we accelerated towards the main entrance sliding to a halt on the linoleum floor of the hallway. As far as we were concerned we had just ridden into Fort Apache with a bloodthirsty horde of savages on our tails, safe at last as the wooden gates slammed shut behind us. Them damned injuns wouldn't dare follow us in here, we were home and dry.
Maybe it was Mike's hand signals, maybe they were more incensed than I had imagined them to be or maybe it was that they were just too thick to realise what they were doing. Whatever the reason they made no attempt to slow down, hurtling towards us at full tilt and it became obvious as the seconds passed that they weren't going to stop at the door.
"Come on," I roared at Mike and dragged him with me towards the bar room passing through the doors at the same moment that the greasers exploded into the hallway.
In a second we had crossed the floor of the bar and were crashing through the swing doors into the ballroom followed seconds later by our black leather friends. The band stopped playing and the room fell silent as everyone turned to the source of the sudden and unexpected racket. I caught a momentary glimpse of my old man's face, frozen in a mixture of rage and shame, then I broke into a run again through the door that opened into a corridor leading to the toilets.
"Hold the door," I screamed at Mike and ran to the far end of the passageway. The narrow corridor boomed as the door was hammered from the far side and I could see Mike wasn't up to holding it back for much longer. At the far end was a fire door and I slammed into the bar that operated the lock, a warm blast of evening air washing across me as I stumbled into the open. Within a second Mike was with me and the door to the ballroom burst open.
It was clear that we weren't going to be able to outrun them and the only solution I could come up with at that moment was to double back to the bar, get a drink and stand right under the barman's nose in a replay of this afternoon's debacle. A pint would be particularly nice since it would probably be my last this week. After all if the Hell's Angels didn't beat the living crap out of me my old man would when he caught up with me and for the rest of the week I'd be sitting with them and tapping my feet to Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
I heard someone yelling at us from behind to stop and desperately tried to accelerate away but there was nothing left, my legs just wobbled and I prayed that the two gorillas were as disgustingly unfit as I was. We rounded the corner by the entrance and a swift glance over my shoulder showed me Sunglasses, wheezing like a Derby winner, twenty feet behind and it was only as I reeled through the door into the entrance hall that I realised what they had done. They had second-guessed us, split up and Leather Jacket was now emerging from the bar-room ahead of us.
That left only one place to go which was down towards the take-away. Ah, the perfect end to a perfect day; not only was I going to have ten shades kicked out of me it was going to happen right in front of the lovely Cheryl. Never mind, I might get the sympathy vote, I'm told that a disabled man does have a certain puppy-dog charm for young women.
They had stopped running when they entered the passageway, after all they didn't need to hurry any more, and were strolling towards us in the certain knowledge that there really was nowhere left to go. I pointed into the corner and said to Mike,
"Here, then they can only come at us from the front."
We backed into the narrow angle and Mike picked up and hefted a tubular steel chair that had been discarded from the caf�.;
"They can 'ave some o' this if they fancy it," he said and for a moment I wanted to believe that we actually stood something like a chance but that was blotted out as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper emerged from the passageway.
And we stood face to face, staring and struggling to get our breath back as the seconds ticked by.
"Oh look," Sunglasses sneered pointing at Mike, "the world's shortest lion tamer. Why don't you come over 'ere and put yer head in me mouth."
"It's that big we could both get our heads in there," I said wishing I hadn't.
The smirk vanished from Sunglasses' face and he jabbed a finger at me.
"You're for it when I've took the chair off him."
"Need a sit down first, do yer? Catch yer breath, like?"
Without warning Sunglasses lunged at me clutching for my jacket collar but Mike swung the chair round on him and the steel legs crashed into his back knocking him off balance. With the swing carrying Mike around with it Leather Jacket took advantage of his loss of balance to snatch at the chair legs and they began struggling for possession. I stood and in a blind panic tried to decide what to do next but the decision was taken away from me as Sunglasses kicked my legs out from under me and I joined him on the floor. He grunted some affront to the noble Somers lineage and wrestled me underneath him, climbing into a sitting position on my chest whilst I tried hopelessly to unsaddle him by rocking my body from side to side. Both of us scrabbled to grip the others' wrists and I felt him edging slowly forward to where he could trap my shoulders under his knees and pin me to the floor, helpless and immobile under his weight.
"Look," I panted, "I don't want to fight with you."
"Well tough, mard arse, 'cause I wanna fight with you."
Mike was losing his struggle for the chair and Leather Jacket was manoeuvring him gradually back into the corner and forcing the chair to the limits of Mike's grip. Any second and his weakened grasp would fail and Leather Jacket would have our only weapon, Sunglasses would have me pinioned to the floor and it would be all over.
Then the Cavalry arrived.
Mike's brother Danny appeared followed closely by Bobby and Andy with Danny's gang bringing up the rear. Danny snatched the chair away from Leather Jacket then interposed himself between them. He punched Leather Jacket in the chest and simply pointed a single finger towards his face with a threatening expression on his face.
"You," he snapped at Sunglasses, "get off 'im now."
"Or else," Sunglassses snarled thereby demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt that he really was as stupid as I'd believed him to be. There were almost a dozen of us and he still wanted to play mean and moody.
"Or else this," Danny said and swung his foot so that his Doc Marten boot connected with Sunglasses' chest knocking him backwards and freeing me from his weight.
I scrambled to my feet and joined Mike and Danny in the corner, my eyes jumping between Leather Jacket and Sunglasses, who had hauled himself to his feet and was glaring at us from the far side of the corridor.
"What's goin' on ?" Danny asked his kid brother
Mike astonished me. Apart from his initial truculence when I had erased his name from the board in the snooker room he had appeared sublimely untouched by events and even at the lowest point, when we were being chased through the club, he had shown next to no reaction. Now he was screaming incoherently, tears rolling down his cheeks, and struggling to get past his brother and reach Leather Jacket. Danny tightened his grip on his brother's shoulders and turned to me nodding his head upwards in a questioning gesture.
"It's these two," I said jerking a thumb in their direction. "They started last night in the snooker room and've been after us ever since. We tried to stop it but they weren't 'aving any."
Danny restrained the struggling Mike with one hand clutching the collar of his jacket and used his free hand to jab a finger at the two greasers.
"You two, fuck off now and if you come anywhere near my brother again you'll 'ave all of us ter deal with."
Cheers, Danny, you might have included me in that warning. Now I was faced with an entire week of staying within touching distance of Mike and given his idiosyncratic taste in women that was not a pleasant prospect.
Mike made another lunge at Leather Jacket, which Danny foiled by tightening his grip.
"You heard, do one or I'll let 'im go and stand here while he kicks ten shades out of yer."
The message appeared to be getting through to Leather Jacket, he pulled at Sunglasses' denim and mumbled something indistinct to him that was clearly about the common sense of leaving while they were still in one piece. Sunglasses glared at me and for a second I thought he was going to risk it and attack me but he allowed himself to be drawn away down the corridor. Danny's gang parted slightly to allow passage, shouldering the greasers as they went and before the gap in the human wall closed it was filled by Cheryl.
I could almost hear the creak as my shoulders broadened, my chest expanded and my height increased by at least two inches. I moved across to where Danny was attempting to calm Mike and slapped the younger brother on the shoulder.
"Com'on, Mike, like your kid says take it easy. They've gone now and they won't be back if they know what's good for 'em."
Mike was still crying and hurling abuse at the departed greasers and his brother shook him to bring him round.
Cheryl was moving towards me. I smiled and she smiled in return.
"Forget 'em," I said to Mike. "They're obviously not as tough as they thought they were."
I smiled again at Cheryl and the smile turned sickly and froze so that it went no further than my lips as she moved closer and slipped her arm through Danny's.
He turned at the contact and grinned at her.
"A'right, sweetheart. Let me just sort our kid out an' I'll be with yer."
I felt like a great gaping hole had opened up where my guts had been and for a moment I actually felt nauseous as I realised the extent of my self-delusion. I had never even stood the vaguest chance with her and what I had interpreted as welcoming smiles had in fact been amusement at my presumption. Then I realised that I was still smiling vacuously in her direction and flipped my expression to one of inscrutable mystery, an emotionless mask �.Oh what was the point, the boat had left the jetty and I was standing there with my luggage waving it goodbye.
Danny had loosened his grip on Mike's lapels and was leaning forward speaking soothingly to his wet face.
"Yer all right now, I've told 'em what'll 'appen if they start again so if they do yer come an' get me, right? Now go on, go and play with yer little friend."
Oh please, somebody kill me and put me out of my misery. Now I was Mike's little friend who he played with! I'm sure that Danny meant no insult, that this was how he saw me. After all I was not particularly tall and when you have a younger brother you do tend to see them as a child and if he'd said this five minutes earlier before the arrival of Cheryl then I might have been a little disgruntled but I would have rode it out. But to say it now! I looked around the floor but unfortunately there were no stones under which I could crawl and when I glanced up at Cheryl I saw that she was grinning. The cow! What did I ever see in her?
As my hearing tuned back in I heard Danny say, "Well okay, but just for tonight. Don't think yer can trail round after us all week." And he pulled him away, back along the corridor to the outer door where he looked back towards where I was standing alone outside the door to the Chuck Wagon.
Yesterday I would have bitten his hand off for the chance to hang around with his crowd but now the idea of spending the rest of the evening watching Cheryl snuggling up to Danny and knowing that she probably thought that I was a pathetic little nerd with ideas way out of his league just made me want to throw up.
"Nah," I said. "I'll see yer 'round, okay?"
Mike raised his hand, Danny simply nodded and the carnival left town trailing victorious noise in its wake.
I sauntered up the corridor and stood in the doorway looking out across the camp. The sun was setting and everywhere was washed by its fierce red light. Danny and his boys were heading off into the serried ranks of caravans with Bobby, Andy and the two skinny girls amongst their number. Everyone was happy.
I hooked one thumb into my jeans pocket, raised my other hand and leaned my forearm against the doorframe and stood, alone and silent, surrounded by the clamour of enjoyment.
I turned to see who had asked the question and there was Cheryl's friend from the Chuck Wagon, identified by her badge as Natalie.
"Nowt much," I lied. "We just had a bit of a ruck with some greasers but it's all over now."
"You want some chips? she asked with an uncertain smile. "On the house?"
On reflection she wasn't too bad, no Cheryl but then perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. I considered taking her up on her offer, imagining sitting at the counter in the Chuck Wagon eating my free chips and dazzling her with my witty repartee Then I imagined what it would look like if Cheryl came in and saw me. It would look like I was settling for second best and I'd had enough humiliation today to last me the entire holiday
"I'm not right hungry at the moment," I said and turned away but I could feel her watching me framed in the doorway against the failing light. I stepped outside and began to walk away towards the beach where the sun was setting over Morecambe Bay. Then I thought that on the other hand Natalie would be the perfect person to let Cheryl know exactly what she was missing and when she finally realised how empty and shallow Danny actually was then she'd curse the day she turned me down.
Yeah, right, that was going to happen!
"Natalie? Hang about, I will have them chips after all. What time do you finish?"