Phil slapped our last twenty pound note down noisily on to the bar. “Good evening Sunshine,” he said to the miserable-looking elderly bartender, “Keep serving us until that’s all gone or we fall off our stools.” The old guy put down the glass he had been polishing, flipped the cloth deftly onto his shoulder and stared blankly back at Phil, hands on hips, deeply unimpressed by his sarcastic bonhomie. This was the last night of our holiday and Phil was determined we would go out with a bang – and in 1981, twenty pounds was more than enough to finance quite an explosion for three young bachelors out on the sauce.
We were in Combe Martin in North Devon, England, in a quaint 17th century pub on the High Street called The Pack o’ Cards Inn. It was 6.30 on a glorious summer evening in late August, and we had already caused something of a stir as we crashed loudly through the pub door, laughing and pushing each other around and dressed as we were in tatty leather biker jackets and torn jeans. We stopped in our tracks as 50 pairs of eyes fell upon us and the pub went completely quiet. The atmosphere might have been ominous enough to make us move on had it not been for the fact that the average age of the patrons was somewhere in the late 60s and they all seemed to be harmless American tourists who had recently arrived on the coach parked outside. There were walking sticks, cameras and baseball caps everywhere and more plaid trousering than you would find in the rest of England combined. Phil looked around before breaking the silence with a Phil classic. “Holy shit. We’re gonna be the only ones still alive by closing time.”
Phil was 20 years old and had always been something of a handful. He was like a very large overly playful Labrador puppy, always bouncing around happily looking for mischief. He was just short of six feet tall when he stood up straight, which he never did, and he had a mop of disorderly blonde hair that stuck out at every conceivable angle from his head no matter how much he combed it, which he did often. His eyes always sparkled and his smooth “peaches-and-cream” complexion gave him an innocent appearance which he definitely did not deserve, and he had a ready wit which co-existed incongruously with an uncanny ability to misunderstand just about everything. He once tried to convince me in all seriousness that God’s real name is Harold. When I asked him where on earth he got that idea, he said “It’s in the Lord’s prayer mate.” I couldn’t work out what he meant until he recited it for me with suitable emphasis. “Our Father, which art in Heaven... ‘HAROLD’ be thy name...” Phil was one of those guys who loved to drink and did it often, but couldn’t drink much or for very long. He always had the best of intentions, and his plans for legendary drinking sessions were always sincere and on a grand scale, but every time we went out he would invariably throw four pints down his throat in the first hour, become talkative, then argumentative, then sentimental, then pass out leaving his friends to pick up the pieces. Tonight would prove to be no exception.
The three of us climbed on to stools at the end of the bar, wriggled ourselves comfortable and lit cigarettes, while “Sunshine” studied the scene before him. He’d seen the likes of us before, and I suspect he’d seen us get out of our taxi in the car park so he knew we weren’t exactly the roughy toughy biker types some of our whispering American grand-cousins apparently believed we might be. “There’s not going to be any trouble in here tonight is there boys?” the old guy asked, shiny bald head cocked forward and watery blue eyes peering intently at us each in turn over the top of the half-moon glasses that were perched on the top of his chubby Roman nose. His tone made the question more of a statement, and to prompt the correct answer he was now leaning casually on the bar on both elbows with his face two feet from Phil’s, staring him straight in the eye. The skirt of gray hair around the rear of his head completed an uncanny likeness to Statler, the bad tempered old muppet always heckling from the theatre balcony. Phil leaned towards him conspiratorially, touched his elbow and nodded furtively towards a sweet-looking old American couple in unnecessary hats sitting at the other end of the bar. “I don’t know...” he said in a hoarse whisper, “but I’d keep my eye on Bonnie and Clyde if I were you...” Phil slapped me hard on the back as we both erupted into laughter, and even the grumpy muppet cracked a reluctant smile. Our good friend Colin, sitting closest to the outlaws, tried to hide his mirth but failed and fell onto his forearms on the bar, tears of laughter streaming from his eyes. The old couple looked across at us and smiled politely while raising their glasses in a silent “cheers”, which only made things worse. Colin turned his head diametrically away from them and tried to shush us back in to order, but it didn’t work. There was no way to stop. It was the kind of compound laughter that feeds off itself and it felt like it was never going to end. Our host evidently decided he liked us despite ourselves and pulled the cloth slowly off his shoulder. “All right, that’ll do” he said in calming tones, then “Three pints I assume?” The three of us wiped away tears and nodded simultaneously, our shoulders still bobbing as our hysterics slowly subsided. The twenty pound note disappeared in to the till, three pints of real English ale appeared in dimpled pint pots, and we settled in for the evening.
At 22 Colin was the oldest of the three of us, but after Phil he had the lowest tolerance for alcohol. The only difference was that Colin knew when he’d had enough and he would stop drinking for a while, but then he would get a second wind, start drinking again and make a wildly unpredictable come-back. Girls tended to like Colin. He bore a striking resemblance to Patrick Swayze, he was tall and slim and there was an effortless something of James Dean about his manner and gait. The only thing that spoiled this overall “cool” persona was the fact that his eyesight was terrible and he actually needed very thick glasses to move around with any measure of safety. Of course he avoided wearing his glasses as much as possible on occasions when girls might be around, and so would often walk straight past us in a crowd even though he came within a few feet. Colin was a fully qualified motor mechanic and there was nothing he didn’t know about engines, which made him a useful ally when all we could afford for transportation was clunky old second hand motorbikes. On this particular trip the three of us and our bags were squeezed into Colin’s tiny and recently rebuilt Hillman Imp, which meant we should probably have been wearing more conservative garb and avoided the semi “bad-ass biker” look we were sporting, but the truth is we didn’t possess any other clothes. Leather jacket, T shirt and tatty jeans was and still is the uniform of the young motorcycle rider, and that’s exactly what we were on any other day. We had only chosen to use Colin’s car on this trip so that we could share the driving and, if necessary due to lack of public transport, take turns as designated driver while the other two drank. This, the last night of our holiday, was the only time we splashed out on a taxi so that we could all drink together. Looking back I wonder what might have happened had we chanced upon a gang of REAL bad-ass bikers during our travels in one of the smallest and least-cool cars ever made. I like to think we could have made our getaway while they rolled around on the floor helpless with laughter.
The three of us had been close friends for many years and this camping holiday was to be our last together because we were going our separate ways the following month for personal reasons. We had been living in Gloucester but I was moving to Oxford to start my career as a fireman, while Colin was going to London to take a job as a mechanic with a coach company. Phil would be staying in Gloucester to carry on working in his father’s fence posting business, which was probably the safest place for him - he understood fence posts. We were to stay the best of friends, but for now this was the end of an era. We had holidayed together every year since we’d known each other and every trip had been something of an adventure, but this trip was to be by far the most memorable for all the wrong reasons.
By 8.30 Phil was talking nonsense and Colin and I were oiled enough to listen and argue. By 9.30 he wanted to arm wrestle every aged American in the pub including the women, and by 10.30 he had told us he loved us several times before disappearing to the toilet and not coming back. We knew he’d be on the floor safely wrapped round a toilet bowl as usual, so we didn’t rush to retrieve him. The Americans had left already and the pub was now completely empty except for the landlord, us, and a local regular who looked like the ancient mariner in a Led Zeppelin T shirt. Our money was gone, spent on a river of real ale, too many cigarettes and three spicy pub curries, and Colin and I were sitting at the bar, smoking in the silence that followed our last conversation and toying absent-mindedly with our empty glasses while trying to summon the enthusiasm to move. I think we both realised that this was the end of the last night of our last holiday together and we didn’t want to initiate the final sequence. I looked up at my good friend Colin, but as I opened my mouth to speak there was the squeak and clank of a spring-loaded door and the barman appeared before us. The moment was gone. “I’m closing up now boys” he announced, “Can I get you one on the house before you go?” In retrospect, this was the turning point. “Why not? Thanks.” I responded, and pushed my empty pint pot towards him. Colin did the same. The barman scooped up both glasses by the handles with one hand and placed them under the beer tap. He pulled back repeatedly on the tall ivory coloured lever and our last pints of ale for the night gushed into our glasses. He plonked them down sloppily on to the bar in front of us and we gave him a bleary “cheers” with glasses half raised before taking the first sip. “Cheers,” he shot back with a smile, “Now knock ‘em back and bugger off. Some of us have homes to go to.” Colin and I dutifully downed our pints as quickly as we could, heaved ourselves off our stools and staggered off to the gents for one vital last visit. It was a good thing we did because if we hadn’t I think we may have forgotten all about Phil. He was there, as expected, face down on the floor in an open cubicle with his trousers half way down, snoring loudly. Before we could help him we desperately needed to help ourselves, so we made our way past him to the urinals. We stood side by side and took turns breaking wind competitively, then simultaneously groaned with pleasure as men do when experiencing the start of that much-needed release. Many appreciative sighs and few shakes later we were kicking Phil gently back into consciousness. Slowly but surely he twitched into life, then he rolled over and sat upright, impossibly twisted against the side of the cubicle, mightily dishevelled and completely disoriented. He had a cigarette butt stuck to his forehead. “Fuuuuck,” he groaned, looking down at his groin, “I think I’ve pissed my pants...” He had. We grabbed an arm each, pulled him up off the floor and propped him upright against the wall so that he could straighten himself out. In the process his trousers fell to his ankles, so he steadied himself with a shaky hand on the sink while he bent over to retrieve them. “Christ you smell like you’ve shit yourself as well!” Colin exclaimed jerking his head away, and we both took a brisk step backwards. Phil stopped in mid bend, pulled down the front of his urine-soaked underpants and peered intently into the revolting depths. His whole body wobbled as he carefully turned the rear crotch inside-out with his fingers for closer inspection, then he looked up at us with a lazy, satisfied smile. “Nope,” he said, “I think we’re all right there.”
A few minutes later we were outside in the deserted car park and the only sound was the key turning in the lock of the door behind us, followed by the metallic scraping of several bolts sliding into place. Then there was silence. As far as I could see in both directions street lamps threw pools of orange-yellow light on to the ground below them, while a bright full moon described the rest of the suburban scene in blue-tinted shades of black and silver gray.
On the way out I had asked the landlord the best way to get back to our campsite, but all he could offer was “Turn left and keep walking.” The street was entirely empty, no vehicles, no pedestrians and definitely no sign of a taxi, but we had no money anyway so a five mile hike back to our tent really was the only option. Colin was now entirely alert and ready for mischief in the midst of his usual second wind, but Phil was sitting on the low car park wall with his elbows on his knees, sucking in deep breaths of fresh air in an effort to sober up. At that moment I became de facto pilot and guardian of the group. I turned to my companions. “You heard the man,” I said, “let’s start walking.” Phil accepted my hand and I heaved him off the wall and on to his feet, while Colin was already heading off along the white line in the middle of the road with arms outstretched as if he were walking a tight rope - but he was heading in the wrong direction. It was clear I would need to keep my eye on him for all our sakes. I pointed Phil in the right direction and gave him a slight push, then I whistled to Colin and gave him a sharp “Oy!” He froze with his arms still outstretched and looked back at me over his shoulder, fighting to keep his balance with one foot directly behind the other. I pointed casually in the direction he should be heading. He nodded once, sucked in a deep breath, then looked forward and raised his chin to a noble angle before performing a swift about-face as gracefully as an Olympic gymnast at the end of a four inch beam.
I looked at my watch. It was 11.15 and at last our journey “home” had begun. I estimated it would take us about an hour to walk the roughly two and a half miles if we kept moving, and I was yearning for my sleeping bag so I jollied the boys along as best I could. In the event it would be many hours before we got the chance to sleep - in fact we were lucky we made it back to our campsite at all.