My friendship with Zach can be described by two and a half words; rock ‘n’ roll. It was at least the search for, or our attempt to be rock ‘n’ roll that led to us becoming friends. We came at it from different angles, him from the harsh unforgiving north with the strikes and the cobbled streets and Morrissey, me from the soft southern plains with the hummus and the escalators and Denise Van Outen. It didn’t matter because being at university allowed this incredible crossing of the streams for us both and before I knew what was happening I was friends with a Manc.
Zach and I were so close in fact, people often asked if there was anything romantic between us. I can only remember kissing him on a handful of occasions.
It was to Zach I turned when I was having troubles with the fairer sex, mostly when I was in hot water. It was to Zach I turned when I got a new album sent through the post I knew we would both want to listen to and it was to Zach I turned when I ran out of food and needed some shelter from whatever was going on in my own flat.
In our second year Zach was living with Zara on the second floor of a three-storey block of student digs on the nice side of campus. Any time anyone ran up the metal stairs on the outside of the building to the top floor you could hear the whole thing ringing out, especially from Zach’s room which was closest to the door.
Zach and I had been working on some new songs for our two-piece band. I played acoustic guitar and sang, he played bass. There were only so many times you could play through the same three songs we had written together and we headed into the kitchen to get ourselves a drink, watch some television and chill out. Yeah, rock ‘n’ roll.
We found Zara at the kitchen table, a mass of paperwork spread out before her. She seemed to be deep in concentration. The crooked line of white scalp down the centre of her ginger parting which continued to face us seemed to confirm it.
Zach put the kettle on and she snapped out of it, dragging one of her earphones away from her head so I could hear the Sweeney Todd soundtrack booming. She always seemed to be listening to soundtracks.
‘Are you okay?’ Zach asked her.
‘Yeah’ she sighed. ‘I’m just struggling to make up numbers for this event.’ Her phone buzzed angrily beside her. She picked it up and started firing off text messages as our conversation continued.
‘What event is this?’ I asked, taking my seat at the table.
‘A beer festival’ she said. Zara had recently been elected Head of the Law Society. It meant putting on one mandatory event a year – the Law Society Christmas dinner – and telling everyone who would listen that you were the head of the Law Society. To her credit she did go on to throw an amazing dinner, from what I can remember of it.
‘Well I would be up for going,’ said Zach, ‘especially if you need to make up numbers.’
‘Yeah, me too’ I said.
‘That’s great. Thanks guys. I’ll need a deposit of £50.00 now and the balance can be paid two days before we go which is in two weeks.’
A tiny voice in my head that sounded a lot like Commander Akhbar tried to warn me it was a trap.
‘Woah, hang on. The alcohol had better be included for £50.00’ I said.
‘What’s the balance then?’ I asked.
‘It’s another hundred.’
‘Well the beer festival is on for a weekend…’
I knew Zara had been going on about some kind of Belgium trip. She had made a number of announcements about it in the few lectures I had been to so far. I have an incredible ability to block out any information being provided to me whilst making it look like I am deep in thought. It involves the occasional sage nod and the furrowing of the brow. It’s infallible.
‘I’ve put your names down now,’ she said, ‘no backing out.’ Her phone vibrated in her hand and she was on it like a cheetah, ripping a reply into its jugular.
‘Who else is going?’ I asked.
‘Well I’ve been into every other law class for the last couple of weeks and I think I’ve got all the applicants I possibly can so I have had to extend it out. I’ve got Ross to invite some of his friends.’
Ross was Zara’s new boyfriend. He was a fresher. We had only met recently and he seemed alright but it was his friend Oliver with whom I had really bonded.
‘Not Beavis and Butthead’ said Zach. This was his fun nickname for Ross and Oliver.
‘Don’t call them that!’ she said ‘Oliver says he can’t make it. These are friends of Ross’s from back home.’
‘From Bracknell?!’ said Zach laughing. ‘I can only begin to imagine what they’ll be like.’
‘Don’t be so sarcastic all the time. No wonder you struggle to make friends.’
The pair of them argued a lot. I think it masked some kind of sexual frustration. There are certain ways you can only speak to someone you live with. They had that vibe.
‘There are also a couple of nursing students I have convinced to come.’ My ears pricked up. After performing arts, nursing students were my favourite.
‘Oh, they’re first years’ she said.
Even better I thought. The odds of someone having got to them yet was unlikely.
‘They’re coming round to pay the deposit in a bit. Try not to terrify them.’
We were sat with a cup of tea, or a brew as Zach insisted on calling it twenty minutes later when there was a knock at the door. I leant back in my chair and threw an arm overboard to try and look like I just could not give a fuck. Teagan walked in first. I was not completely sold on the idea. Layla came in next and everything fell into soft focus and cartoon birds and hearts floated around her head as she smiled at us.
‘Hi’ she said softly.
‘Hello’ said Zach, I watched his face change. I had seen her first. I would fight him to the death if it came to it.
‘Oh hello!’ I said like Graham Norton welcoming guests onto his show. I stared hard at the TV until I was sure she wasn’t paying me any attention and then I shot sideways glances at her lovely right temple and ponytail. I also noticed she had what Eddie and Richie in Bottom would call a “wazzo pair of jugs”.
Teagan and Layla both paid their money to Zara and then, incredibly, they didn’t leave. They stood and talked to Zach and me as though we were normal people and not deranged lunatics.
‘What have you guys been up to tonight then?’ Teagan asked. I responded to Layla.
‘We’ve been jamming. We’re a band. We’re in a band, the two of us.’
‘Cool. What kind of stuff?’
I hated being asked that question.
‘Oh god, how I hate being asked that question.’ When I looked over to my right hand I had somehow lit a cigarette and was swinging it about like Shatner performing Rocket Man. ‘I suppose it’s sort of like a scuzzy garage-band indie sort of vibe. There’s a bit of shoegaze in there as well but I really care about the words you know, I think they’re important.’
I do genuinely think lyrics are important but it would be impossible for me to consider my musings on the world at a tender nineteen years old to be important. Regardez:
I’m staying up
I like it all alone
Even if do keep checking the phone
I’ll wait all night
For little Miss Right
But she’s on a date with Mr Wrong
Roll over Wilde! There’s a new kid in town and he has managed to rhyme phone with wrong. He’s a maverick but is he the voice of his generation?
‘That’s cool’ said Layla, pretending she had cared about or even understood whatever bile it was I had just issued to try and convince her it was worth letting me length her out. She didn’t seem to be taking the bait.
They hung around for a little longer before I finally managed to scare them off with some more villainous billowing.
‘Bye, it was nice to meet you’ Zach and I both called as Zara kindly showed them the escape route.
‘You guys are so pathetic’ said Zara when she came back. ‘As soon as any girl flutters their eyelashes at you, you both turn to jelly.’
‘Yeah’ said Zach, ‘what’s wrong with that?’
He went to make another brew.
‘I think I love her’ I said.
Two weeks later I was stood at a bus stop alone. I was wearing an overcoat I got in a charity shop for ten pounds, my multi-coloured scarf, gloves, a hoodie, a t-shirt, skinny jeans and Converse. It doesn’t matter how long the list looks, it was not enough layers and I was freezing. I had been told to be there for six am sharp. It was so early that nobody else in my flat was up and I had to carry my tiny suitcase for the weekend all the way out because I was worried about it making too much noise if I rolled it out the door. I could be considerate sometimes. I was on my third cigarette of the morning, the second I had smoked since arriving at the bus stop. I was bored and when I was bored I tended to chain-smoke to keep my hands busy. The only down side was I had to have one hand exposed to the elements. I decided it was best to leave both gloves off and alternate between hands, allowing the other hand to rest in the confines of the deep pockets between its shift.
As I stood there, trying to pretend I was Holden Caulfield, I felt the coiled up bus ticket in the coat pocket. My favourite thing about buying things from charity shops is when you get some kind of remnant of the previous owner along with it. It’s like an added extra. My overcoat had a bus ticket from 1994 in the pocket. I had built up this entire back-story for the guy who had it before me, how he had left it dangling from a fence post before he threw himself in front of the bus. I missed a man I had made up.
From the far side of the campus, behind the car park outside the library, I could hear a distant scraping sound. With the isolation of the cold there was nothing to interrupt it so it grew until I could differentiate the harsh, barked voices. The lads were coming.
When I first met Ross I didn’t really think too much of him and I don’t mean it in a negative way. When he had first met him and it became clear Zach and I were going to have to get used to the idea of him being around, Zara had cleverly arranged for both Ross and his friend Oliver to be in the flat at the same time as us. When we met I shook his hand and we shared some cans of beer and I couldn’t really think much more about him as I was drawn into this very intense conversation with Oliver which has never really let up.
I always think I’ve got to a point where I have earned all the friends I could need for a lifetime and then someone new will break through. That’s what it was like. I was determined to stay faithful to my friends from home, like the couples from college who went to different universities but swore they could find a way of “making it work long distance”. There’s no such thing.
As Oliver and I had hit it off from our first meeting, Ross had come along as part of the package. I later learned Oliver had words with both of us prior to the trip, telling Ross that despite what he may have thought I was actually alright. He told me the opposite.
Ross was amongst the gang heading towards the bus stop from the other side of campus. In their midst I could make out Zara, Zach and our friend Tamara.
Tamara was one of the few people I met in my three years at university who lived off campus. Her family seemed pretty well to do and had a place nearby. She was studying law but her only ambition seemed to be to find herself a sugar daddy and get knocked up.
As she lived off campus Zara had decided it would make sense for Tamara to stay at her flat for the night. The only available bed appeared to belong to Zach and he was only too happy to share.
‘Morning’ said Zach with a grumble I knew meant he’d had the previous night ruined for him by this gang of unruly youths. He looked like he could have done with a strong coffee but the canteen was closed, and there was no way you could get a strong coffee in there even if you tried to make it yourself.
‘I need a strong coffee’ he said.
‘The canteen is closed’ I said. ‘I doubt you could get a strong coffee in there even if you made it yourself.’ I was met with silence. Yep. Definitely in a bad mood. My comment was clearly hilarious.
A bus pulled up and we let the rowdy kids take the back seats. Zach and I sat together somewhere in the middle in the hope some good films would be shown over the course of the twelve hour coach journey. Zach and I shared headphones and let the two hours to Folkestone pass by, playing music we felt the other should have been more aware of. There was always something he could show me and never really much I could offer up in exchange.
Zach was in fact the first person I knew of who could torrent music. The Internet on campus was provided by cable and you had to register for it and pay some kind of administration fee for the privilege. This meant they could limit our access to certain websites and programs as well as potentially monitoring our activity. Imagine being tasked with sifting through all those porn searches. Big Brother Is Watching but you’re just watching MILF porn.
Over the course of several weeks at a time Zach and I would make a list of all the albums we knew were being released or didn’t have and most certainly needed and then he would plan on spending a weekend at his dad’s. His dad lived in London so it was never too far for him to travel and collect Zach. Zach would spend a weekend at home and leave the albums downloading for the pair of us and return on the Sunday night with an external hard drive of new stuff for us to listen to.
When we got to the Eurotunnel our coach was loaded in and we were trapped in a hanger for a couple of hours. I don’t know if conditions have since improved because I refuse to travel via a method used for cattle but it was not fun. It should be considered this review is being provided by a man used to being trapped in a relatively small space for long periods of time with no idea about where he actually was in life. I’m talking about campus.
We all got off the coach and tried to get some exercise by walking up and down the available space but you could only go as far as the toilets at one end and the cut off for the next carriage at the other. I couldn’t even smoke.
After what seemed like a ten stretch we were told to return to our vehicles and through the tiny porthole-like windows I got my first glimpse of beautiful France. If only I were staying in beautiful France.
My sole experiences of Belgium up to this point had not been pleasant ones. I had never really thought of it as being a place. The only times I had been through it were on my way to the bright lights of Amsterdam. In my head Belgium was a motorway. I knew it had one service station as the year before we had broken down in a coach on our way to the city of sin. I couldn’t work out what else could have possibly been on offer.
We got back on and drove. Zach and I did what we could to keep entertained but the pair of us were coils of energy and the coach had nothing to keep us going. Zara had decided to bring a number of DVDs with her. These were shown over the two televisions on-board. There was one at the front and one just above where the stairs down to the toilet were, halfway down. Zach and I were in the right spot. The merciless journey continued and it grew dark. We continued on. I don’t know when boring French motorways became boring Belgium motorways but it must have happened at some point. I was worried my opinions of Belgium were correct, that it was just some ridiculous non-entity between actual places like the space down the back of a cupboard or Shotgate.
During the journey Zach told me how he felt he had come close to something happening with Tamara on the night before when they had been forced to share a bed. They had stayed coiled up together all night, one of his arms thrown over her shoulder where she held his hand in both of hers against her ample bosom. I promised to be a good wingman.
While we were all running about and flowing and laughing the bus pulled up at the side of a deserted road and the lights came on overhead.
Blinking in the new and artificial brightness we unravelled ourselves and got off the coach, assuming it was the latest stop on the way to our destination.
It was a Friday night and you could have heard a pin drop. There were no cars running down the six or eight lanes between us and the other side of the road. There were high-rise buildings lining the avenue. There was a tramline down the centre and a tram shelter. There were little grass verges and pots of flowers. There was no litter. There was no graffiti. There were no people. It was like the town had been created that day but not opened to the general public or some kind of epidemic had forced everyone to abandon it.
‘How long are we stopping here?’ I asked Zara as I performed a series of bizarre stretches and tried to light up a cigarette in the cold wind that swept by, turning in every angle to try and get shelter.
‘What do you mean?’
‘How long are we here for?’ I repeated.
‘Well, until Sunday obviously. Did you not get my itinerary?’
I looked around. I was confused. We couldn’t stay here.
‘We can’t stay here’ I said.
‘Well obviously not right on this spot,’ said Zara, as she juggled her clipboard and papers. ‘The hotel is just over there.’
I looked around our desolate hotspot. I had been right. Belgium was the pits.
As is usually the case after going tête-a-tête with a woman I was quickly proved wrong. Zara acted as a cheap lollypop lady to get us all across one side of the road, the tramline and then the other side. She marched us through the wild blocks like we were trying to find a slot we could settle into during a game of Tetris. Over the other side of a concrete wall behind the buildings I could see the sea. I was confused. I thought Belgium was landlocked.
Zara led us into one of the nicest hotels I have ever visited and strolled to the front desk with purpose before conducting the entirety of our check-in in French. I was impressed. Zach and I looked at each other in amazement. We were soon given a room number and sent off to get out from under their feet. We weren’t too concerned about where any of the others had gone. I hadn’t signed up to spend the weekend worrying about other people. I wanted to get drunk with Zach and possibly try and score with a Belgian bun. In my head Belgian girls looked like Swedish girls and always wore lederhosen.
‘This place is fooking nice’ said Zach as the door swung open and we walked into what was closer to being an apartment than a hotel room. It was separated. We had a lounge as well as a bedroom with two double beds sat side by side. One side of the bedroom was mirrored and our amazement at our luck was reflected back to us. Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
‘It’s not that late. We should see if we can go out somewhere’ he said.
‘Did you not see it out there; it’s like the start of 28 Days Later. We aren’t getting a drink anywhere.’
I noticed there was another door leading off of the bedroom. I opened it and was stood on a balcony overlooking the beach I had been able to hear from the street.
‘Dude, we’ve got a balcony.’
It wasn’t just a balcony. There were thin spiral staircases up and down from our little piece of outdoors to other floors as well as alleys across each side to the next rooms. As there were so many of us in the relatively small hotel we were able to shimmy along until we found someone we recognised through the windows. We had a hamster run built in.
Before we explored the capabilities of our balcony network we headed out to try and find somewhere to get a drink. At the very least we figured there would be an off license somewhere and we could find something just to get us through the night. It was supposed to be a beer festival and we were as dry as a morning after tongue.
The pair of us ran back out to the street and started walking. It was freezing cold and we were just in our band uniform of blazers and skinny jeans. We figured that as long as we kept the tramline in sight we would be able to navigate our way back again. It was still deathly quiet. I was concerned there might have been some kind of curfew in place we were contravening. People have been shot dead for a lot less.
Eventually we made out the glow of a 24-hour garage. It was like being led to the messiah by a star that appeared. We were no wise men. We weren’t even shepherds.
We got inside and shivered off the last of the cold. We each picked up a bottle of the cheapest wine available and started on our way to the counter.
‘Wait, what language do they speak in Belgium?’ I asked.
I knew there wasn’t a Belgian language, or was there?
‘Belgian’ said Zach.
‘I don’t know any Belgian.’
‘Neither do I dude!’ he replied and shoved me forwards.
‘Bonjour’ said the clerk.
Wait a minute I thought, that sounds a lot like French.
I returned a friendly bonjour, handed over my Euros and was able to carry my wine out like a mother leaving the hospital for the first time with their first-born child. I lit up another cigarette for the walk back to the hotel.
Zach collected the two plastic cups from our en suite and we poured out a glass of wine each. When those were gone we poured out another, and then another. Carrying the second bottle out with us we headed onto the balcony where we both lit up again and started to creep along the avenue of overhangs. Each time we came to a window where we recognised the inhabitants we would give a hearty knock. If we didn’t know them we would creep by or watch them until they noticed us and then pretend we were just passing through.
We knocked on one window and found Dal staying there. He came out of his door to have a cigarette with us on the balcony. I had first met Dal when the pair of us roomed together on a similar trip to Amsterdam in our first year. He was a quiet guy but he had a good heart. He was rooming with Olaf, this Hagrid-like Eastern European giant who loved metal. He proved this by making the devil sign with his hands whenever a camera was pulled on him.
‘What are you guys doing out here?’ Dal asked as he tried to find a space to occupy.
‘Getting drunk mostly’ I said.
‘We are looking for a party’ said Zach.
‘I think you want the next window across then’ said Dal, ‘from the sound of it, the party is in there.’
We finished our cigarettes, topped up our cups from the second bottle and shimmied over to the next window. There seemed to be a party going on as Dal had suggested. Somehow they had got a crate of beers. There seemed to be more people in the double bedroom than on the coach. It was possible some of them were locals who had been picked up in the preceding hour. Zach and I knocked on the window several times and were let in when they finally heard us over the music. We nearly smashed through the glass to beat the volume first. Ross was there, as were all his droogs. It seemed they were the instigators of the party. Somehow they were in matching fedoras and white-rimmed sunglasses. They were all wearing them, indoors. The outfit of the basic dick. Zach and I slumped down in the corner with Tamara.
‘Duncan has asked me up to his room’ she said. Zach and I must have both looked horrified. ‘I don’t know if I want to go.’
Duncan was this huge rugby player type who was in my law class. I tried really hard to get along with him, as I try to get along with everyone but he had some kind of complex and gave me snide looks and comments whenever I had attempted to at least be nice. As a result I had given up on him. He was intelligent in class but in real life was about as entertaining as a sheet of flypaper. He was only concerned with going to the gym and discussing cases. I had no time for either.
‘Don’t do it T’ said Zach. I don’t know why he felt it necessary to abbreviate her name. He only didn’t want her to do it because he fancied his chances.
Regardless of our advice she disappeared off guiltily. Zach nervously waited for her to come back and drunk most of the rest of the wine. We befriended the goons and were able to get a couple of lukewarm cans of lager apiece as a reward.
‘I hope’ slurred Zach, ‘she has only gone there to tell him she is in love with me.’
‘That’s definitely what might have happened’ I offered.
Tamara came back looking different. It had been about ten minutes since she had left us. I know the look of a woman who has just experienced disappointing sex. It is incredibly hard to describe.
‘What happened? Could he not get it up?’ I asked, turning on my best catty chatter.
‘He could. It was alright. I mean, I don’t care too much about size but he got to it far too quickly…’
‘Did you consent?’
‘Of course I bloody consented, have you seen those arms?’ she parried. ‘It’s just that he got to it far too quickly and then it was all over far too quickly.’
‘Wait until Zara hears about this’ said Zach, laughing.
‘You can’t tell her. You have to both promise not to tell her. She has a major thing for him.’ There was always some kind of dramatic love triangle going on between the people around me and they always made it seem like it was so important. I’ve never known anything that mattered less.
‘Oh everyone has a major thing for him, shame he’s as much fun as a slice of wet bread. Anyway, Zara is with one of the fooking Banana Splits now’ said Zach, pointing towards Ross.
‘Duncan is alright, he’s just shy.’
‘That’s what they say about total wankers’ I said and finished off my beer. ‘Come on Zach, I’m going for a fag.’
Watching the party from the outside made it all the more depressing for the both of us. It made me realise it didn’t matter how much I tried to get involved, I was never going to be a part of their scene. I could be invited in and they could engage with me but when I removed myself again afterwards there wasn’t a single head that turned to watch me go.
Zach was upset because as soon as we left Tamara got off with one of Ross’s mates on the bed. We stumbled back to our room, both of us almost going over the edge and down to the concrete below at varying points upon the short journey. I fell into bed and dreamt of nothing in particular.
I woke up the next morning feeling like I had drunk a bottle of wine and smoked about two packets of cigarettes. It wasn’t too far from the truth. I rolled over and realised I was in some kind of opulent palace bedroom and not in my flat, lying in a single bed that occasionally popped apart at one of the wooden joints so all the slats fell out. The only thing that ruined my view was the hairy Manc sleeping next to me.
I sat up and let the contents of my head fall into place. My mouth felt like I had put all of my cigarettes out in it.
‘Oh fook, me head’ said Zach, rolling onto his back and letting out a gush of air. ‘What was that all about?’
‘You know what they say, when in Rome.’
‘But we are in Belgium.’
‘Yes Zach, for a beer festival. We have to be drunk or hungover at all times.’
‘I can’t drink anymore.’
‘You don’t have to right now, we are hungover. You just have to drink once that goes. What is the deal with breakfast in this place? Do you reckon we can order up some room service.’
I threw back the covers and realised I had gone to sleep naked. I quickly drew them back up around me and walked over to the desk in the corner where a menu in a faux-leather sleeve had been propped up for us.
‘Damn, we have to pay for it.’
We both got showered and dressed before going out to find the rest of the group. We had no idea which room anyone would be in and ended up wandering the halls until we ran into Teagan and Layla.
‘Morning girls’ I said with the smoothness of a cat’s tongue, possibly even going so far as leaning against the wall in mock-casualness.
‘What happened to the pair of you last night?’ Teagan asked which was shorthand for we looked like shit.
‘Went to a party.’
‘Cool. Where was that?’
‘In someone’s room.’
Even if they were being sarcastic it was enough for me.
Zach and I wandered out into the street. In the light the place looked even more concrete and desolate, like Basildon. Unlike Basildon though it was clean, I wasn’t scared of the locals and I could understand most of what they were saying. We kept walking in the same direction to make sure we didn’t branch off and get lost somewhere in the cacophony of identical-looking roads. I couldn’t go missing in Belgium, I had bigger plans.
We got to the garage we had frequented on the previous night and found a small café where through strangled French we were able to order a couple of sausage baguettes and two cans of Coke.
Zach and I sat outside in the freezing, hungover morning and ate them on a park bench, watching our staggered breath extend from our mouths in clouds.
‘What is the plan for today then?’ I asked between chews.
‘I’m sure Zara told me’ he said, ‘but right now I’m not really able to pull a thought from my head.’
‘She’s exactly the kind of person I would expect to have an itinerary.’
‘Tell me about it. Imagine having to live with her.’
By the time we got back to the hotel it seemed as if Zara’s intended itinerary was well and truly in order. There were a gaggle of our troupe waiting outside, excitedly huddled together as they talked about the places they had ventured to so far. Everyone seemed to have had a very different night. Some had found bars or pubs, some had been at the party with us and some had even gone to bed. Dal was amongst the latter and was yet to emerge.
‘The plan for today’ said Zara, leaning on both Zach’s and my shoulders to get a bit of height over the masses, ‘is to go to a lovely little market in town where they sell all sorts of cheese and hand-made crafts.’ If she hadn’t been directly beside me I would have made a smart remark to Zach about neither option being the reason we had found our way to Belgium. ‘Today is a free day so you’re responsible for feeding and watering yourselves but then everyone is to be back at the hotel and ready for seven o’clock as I’ve arranged for a coach to take us to the beer festival because it’s in the next town. That’s seven o’clock or we will go without you.’
She dropped herself back to her 5’6 norm and trotted on.
‘Boys, come on’ she called back. The group all looked around at one another. There would have been a time when the request could only have meant Zach and me but with her bright young thing of a boyfriend and his mates lurking about it was hard to tell.
‘Zach, Michael, come on’ she said. Tamara followed too. We trotted after her and were soon lost in a market. I’m not a fan of markets. I think they’re fundamentally a good thing but like most things I don’t like, are ruined by people. It seems to me people forget how to walk at a reasonable pace when they’re in the midst of the stalls. They’ll crawl along and everyone else crawls along with them. It’s like being stuck in a traffic jam solely caused by people rubbernecking a smashed up car and possibly a body. In a market you never get to enjoy the beauty of the wreckage. You might get a free sample of cured meat though.
When we were done putting ourselves through something none of us really wanted to have a part of, we moved on to a pub. We found an Irish-themed bar opposite a canal and sat in a huddle as we waited for the warmth to return to our bones. It’s incredible how there will always be an Irish-themed bar in any town or city I visit anywhere. It never ceases to amaze me. It’s like some kind of gimmick. They all ordered beer which came in huge, glass tankards. I drank Jack Daniels in the hopes it would help me get my head together.
Somehow Dal found us, managing to identify the exact bar we were most likely to be in in the tiny town and walking in as though he expected us to be there the whole time. He was nursing a hangover from the previous day, or so he claimed, and managed to drink nothing but Cokes for the rest of the afternoon.
We stumbled out later to get back to the hotel. After her stern warning to the others, Zara needed to make sure she was at the head of the group when the coach turned up. Zach and I decided to shower and get changed to freshen up ahead of the beer festival. It was like preparing to go into battle. A feeling only heightened when we headed downstairs and everyone solemnly filed onto the bus like it was going to carry us down to the beaches at Normandy.
Somewhere at the back of the bus I heard a ring pull on a can of lager. It was our call to arms. You can always hear a can of lager being opened, it sounds much more carnal than anything else. I looked back and realised it was the Fedora Gang, still in their sunglasses despite the fact the sun had well and truly set. Dicks.
It brought everyone up to the heights of the previous night. We were headed out. It was going to be the greatest night Belgium had to offer.
The bus let us off in a town square. Everything was cobbled, especially the people. There was one light on and it was coming from a set of double doors on the far side. We stood beside the grey light of the town hall and watched in, drawn to the heat and light it seemed to emit like insects. As the lot of us drew closer I could make out the sounds of brass instruments.
We queued up and were allowed in, Zara waving several sheets of paper at the organisers and trying to explain what was going on.
Inside, we were asked to change up euros for orange and green plastic chips. The orange chips cost two euros and could be exchanged for beer. The green chips were for food and cost five. The cost of the trip covered our first lot of chips despite Zara previously telling us the beer would all be covered. Once all the admin had been taken care of, we walked through into the beer hall and discovered the most clichéd vision of Europe imaginable.
Down the right-hand side were a series of long benches where men who looked like they could have been Vikings and women who looked like they also could have been Vikings were raising tankards to the success of their latest raping and pillaging of a small town somewhere. Overhead were exposed wooden beams that didn’t look like they could be trusted. On the left hand side was a long bar where throngs of people were entering, merging and exiting at a steady pace. Behind the counter were women dressed like sexy Von Trapp kids, skating about and collecting beers from the upturned barrels in a rack on the wall behind them. On a raised circular platform, dressed in lederhosen perhaps a little bit too revealing were a wide-load Oom-pa band.
‘Zach, this is amazing’ I said.
‘You’re telling me.’
With a pocket full of orange and green chips we started on our way up to the bar.
Four hours later I awoke with my head on a table. Something was itching at my neck and I could make out the sound of a tuba. I did not feel good. Everything about the situation told me I was in some kind of peril. I sat up suddenly and Zach pulled away, an eyeliner pencil gripped guiltily in his left hand.
‘Whatchadoin?’ I rushed.
‘Just writing “boobs” on your neck’ he said.
‘Alright’ I replied and let my head drop back down, my cheekbone connecting a little too hard with the wooden table so when I yawned the next morning I heard a worrying, disconnecting crack in my jaw. ‘I get to write on you next though.’
‘Alreet, but don’t draw a cock. Everyone always draws a cock. Also, drink up. It’s your round and you’ve barely touched your raspberry beer.’
‘There’s a reason people don’t regularly drink raspberry beer’ I managed to get out from my dropped position. ‘It’s not very good. In future I think I will just stick to regular beer made from… regular ingredients. You can keep that fancy stuff to yourself.’
‘Done’ he said. I sat up proudly. Zach passed me the eyeliner and I wrote “I ❤ MOM” on his neck. For some reason it was what I needed to pull me out of my funk.
‘I’m not drinking anymore of that raspberry shit so feel free to do it for me. I’ll get us another one.’ I struggled to my feet, trying to untangle my thin legs from the bench. I got to the bar with a wide curve to my intended route and propped myself up, trying to get the attention of anyone but hoping it would be a barmaid.
‘Deux!’ I shouted at the poor girl attempting to serve me, assuming I was normal and aware of my senses.
‘Which beer do you want?’ she asked in perfect but accented English.
‘What would you recommend?’
‘A lot of people are drinking the honey beer. It is very nice.’
‘Two of those please thank you’ I said and my legs gave out on me in exchange for trying to conduct a conversation. I caught both elbows on the bar as I started to give out like a carjack and hoisted myself upright.
While I was waiting for our honey beers I looked back at the table. Everyone was enjoying themselves. There were around twenty people sat down one long picnic bench and there were raised voices and beer sloshing about everywhere. The band had taken a break but had left their instruments on the stand. I wondered how far I could run with a cornet before they caught me.
‘Two please’ said the barmaid as she returned with the beers, shaking me out of my thoughts of thieving. I was slightly confused. In my drunken stupor I was under the assumption she thought I was serving.
‘I don’t have any beers I’m afraid, I thought you were behind the bar. Am I? Am I behind the bar?’ I looked around myself befuddled. ‘Yeah, I’m not behind the bar. You’re behind the bar. I’ll take the beers though.’
‘No, two orange tokens, to pay’ she said. I bowed, handed over the tokens and tried to make it back to the table without spilling beer down both of my sleeves. I failed.
When I got back it was a cause for celebration. All down the line they smashed their tankards into one another. They glass seemed to be able to take it. This meant everyone lost the top quarter of their beer as it slopped over the side and down their arms. Nobody seemed to mind.
The band started up again. We decided the best thing we could possibly do was crowd around them. Zach, Dal, Olaf and I walked over to cheer them on. In a dazzling display of showmanship, and in a move Mötley Crüe would consider a bit much, the entire bandstand started to rotate. I don’t remember being invited onto the bandstand but that was exactly what we did. It was probably grounds for being shot as a trespasser. The four of us sat on the edge and let the most awkward fairground attraction ever designed slowly take us round. The players seemed to love our gumption. I might have hugged one of their legs as we span. The four of us raised our drinks to Belgium until we were kindly asked to step away from the oom-pa band.
When we were kicked out some time later I helped Zach carry Tamara across the square because she didn’t seem able to do so herself. We propped her down on the steps outside the town hall and continued with our brilliant conversation. My ears were ringing but not paired with the usual 4/4 time signature of the indie rock I considered myself an expert in. Instead it burst me apart in triplets; one two three, one two three, one two three, one two three. I found my feet were matching the waltz that had ended the night even if I appeared to be staggering. One beer more and Zach would be carrying both Tamara and I home.
‘That was the best beer festival ever!’ I said, raising my arms straight up. ‘I mean, I’ve never been to a beer festival but based on that one, I would consider going to more.’
‘So, so would I. The beer wasn’t… wasn’t that great… but the beer was so good!’
Tamara vomited somewhere near our feet. We both took a step backwards and continued chatting as though it were nothing.
‘Imagine what we could do if we had a brass band playing with us as well’ I suggested.
‘That’s totally, totally what we should do. There must be an orchestra on campus. We can recruit the trumpet players.’
‘Zach, they’re called trumpeteers.’
‘Yeah, trumpeteers! We will invite all of them to play with us and then we can get a revolving stage put up in Bar One. We could make it a night.’
Zach and I loved coming up with bizarre concepts for nights at the bar. It always seemed like anything orchestrated by the union reps was done with the sole intention of getting the girls to wear something revealing. We wanted something else, we wanted spinning brass bands.
A bus pulled up between us and the beer festival. It looked as if the last few revellers were being kicked out. We watched as Ross and his league of extraordinary morons dropped one of their number into the small water fountain at the centre of the square. In the freezing night we were sure he would be dead before morning. Tamara heaved afresh somewhere below us.
‘I bet nobody in this town saw this coming’ said Zach.
‘What’s that then?’ I asked.
‘A bunch of hoodlums turning up in their tiny town and wrecking the joint. It looks like Magaluf right now.’
‘Wish it was as warm as Magaluf’ I said and pulled the collar up on my overcoat.
‘You’re far too southern sometimes’ said Zach with a grin. I couldn’t dispute it.
‘I’m alright now’ said Tamara and she stood up. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand as though she had consumed an oyster rather than vomiting on the town hall steps of a small Belgian town. She shook her head to clear it and led Zach by the hand back to the bus. The pair of them sat together on the journey to the hotel. I tried to work out where I could spend the night if the pair of them copped off. A lot of the time that’s the job of a good wingman, working out where to go so you’re out of the way. It’s like standing in your mum’s kitchen when she’s cooking a roast.
I looked around for the possibility of a hook up. Unfortunately I appeared to be the last lifeboat on the Titanic and the women got off first.
Most of the women appeared to be getting off with the naughty boys at the back of the bus. When I was at school I always assumed there would be a natural progression and eventually I would be one of the bad kids who sat at the back of the bus. The only times in the entirety of my academic life I recall sitting on the back seat of the bus was when I stayed late working on a project about computer games. Even then it was because I was the only kid on the bus.
Everyone still seemed to be drinking. There were girls sat on guy’s laps and visa versa. There was an excited uproar. Someone had a boombox. I wondered what kind of Fresh Prince Of Bel Air hell I had climbed aboard. I watched Layla tonguing one of the boys in the fedoras and glasses and entered my Dean Martin Little Old Wine Drinker Me phase of being a depressed drunk. When Dal passed me a hipflask I drunk deep and tried to forget I was me for at least a little while.
When we got back to the hotel, nobody wanted to sleep but there was nowhere else to go. The place was completely desolate. Anyone with any foresight had taken the opportunity to load up on alcohol earlier in the day when everything was open. Zach and I had two more bottles of wine waiting for us. When he felt able to put Tamara down for twenty seconds he followed me up to the room and we opened up a bottle on the balcony.
‘Dude, what’s that?’ he asked me, the cigarette bouncing up and down between his lips eagerly. I looked out to where he started pointing.
‘That’s just the sea, or an ocean or maybe even an estuary or something.’
‘Why don’t we go there? We can get everyone to go down to the beach. It will be great.’
Before I could stop him he had disappeared into the darkness, running down the avenue of overhangs. I caught up with him as he was banging on Dal’s window.
‘We are going to the beach!’ he shouted when he had got their attention. Without waiting for a response he headed along to the next window to repeat his message.
Five minutes later we were stood watching the surf roll in. From whatever was out ahead of us a bitter wind was blowing. Zach, Zara, Tamara, Dal, Olaf and I huddled together like penguins. We had four bottles of wine between us. Amongst that, Zach and I had one each. We continually tipped these up and poured them down our throats and our clothes. I appeared to have got my second wind, entering a demonic rush as I ran down the beach, partly to keep warm and partly to splash about in the surf and pretend there would be no circumstance to the crimes against my footwear. Converse are, after all, thoroughly absorbent.
‘I’m the king of the world’ shouted Zach as the wind howled against us.
‘Zach, Michael, this is really stupid and cold. I’m going back indoors’ called Zara. I didn’t listen. I was balanced on top of a rock whirling the edges of my coat around me like a bird of prey. Zach was making aeroplane noises. One by one they all headed back inside. Whatever chances Zach had of bedding Tamara that night were reduced to nought as he parried with me on the frozen beach.
We got back to our room and I put my shoes on the radiator. My socks were soaked through so I put them on the radiator too. We had launched one of the bottles into the water but the backwash at the bottom of the other had made it upstairs with us. We took it out onto the balcony and tried to finish it off without vomiting.
‘Do you reckon everyone has gone to bed?’ asked Zach as he crumpled up my empty box of Marlboro Lights in his hand and we smoked the last one between the pair of us like comrades on the trenches.
‘There’s only one way to find out’ I said and headed down the rat run. Not all of the curtains were closed and it was at these we stopped and gazed in, trying to freak out whoever was inside. We got Dal, making him jump and drop the glass of water he was carrying over to his bed before calling it a night. We laughed and moved on. The next room, the curtains were closed, and the next, and the next. Then we made our most startling discovery of the evening.
The curtains had been drawn but not completely. We could make out the outlines of two men, one on each of the beds. The room was laid out identically to our own. They seemed to be talking to one another and competing in some kind of press-up competition.
In tandem they changed position and I realised it was not a press-up competition at all. The boys both rolled over to the right, bringing their charge up on top of them. The girls repositioned themselves and started to bounce. I realised who they were, that we knew them but I didn’t stop staring. I couldn’t. I could see my breath against the window and knew Zach wasn’t looking away either. The girls kept looking at each other, trying to work out if they were really doing what they were doing and then one of them would arch back in some kind of faux porn star pose and the other would copy. It was only when they were finished that Zach and I silently went back to our room and went to bed.
In the morning my head felt like my parachute had refused to open. My eyes were rolling around in my head like loose change. I opened them and thought I was going to be sick. I tried to drink some water but sitting up made me feel sick. I looked over at Zach and he was doing the kind of sleeping kids do where their legs are drawn up under their entire bodies and they’re just supported on their face and knees. It was like he was praying to Mecca. I couldn’t work out what had happened on the night before. It came back to me when I was on the coach and had access to the few photos people had taken. That’s how my memory keeps it even now. As the captured snapshots.
Somehow we got ourselves together, packed up our stuff and dragged our sorry selves out to the curb. Zara tried to give us all rehydration tablets but the sodium in them made me want to be sick. Somehow I got to sleep despite the casual rocking of the road and didn’t feel right again for several days.
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