Stuck.

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One thing that the pandemic has taught us all to collectively identify with is the notion of being stuck. Whether it is stuck sat in front of a screen on perpetual Zoom meetings, stuck spending a lot more time with your household that you ever intended to or being stuck for choice when it comes to the quality of toilet paper available. We have all been stuck these last twelve months.

And being in this state of inertia has led me to spend more time regressing back through memories of scrapes and situations I inadvertently got myself in to. Including the time I got dangerously stuck trying to escape the feeling of being stuck.

It was the summer of 1999. For the previous few years, a small group of friends and I had been on a successions of booze-fuelled holidays together – usually in some notoriously hedonistic Greek resort. The plan was simple. Someone with impeccable organisation skills would take the mantle of booking the holiday, ensuring regular remuneration was being outlaid and that a suitable itinerary was in place to make sure we all arrived promptly and safely at our chosen destination. But this year was different. After years of trying to dissuade him from getting involved, Johnjo decided that he needed to prove his worth.

Now, Johnjo is an enigma. The living embodiment that intelligence and common sense are inversely proportionate. I once had to rescue him from inside his duvet cover when he got stuck trying to change his bed linen. He is purported to have been inside for in excess of an hour. He was also extremely stuck when it came to learning new culinary skills. For the entire time I lived with him at university, he had the same meal every night. A jacket potato cooked for 13 minutes in a microwave unceremoniously dumped in a sea of lukewarm baked beans. Potato Island. It appeared to keep him alive and just about provide him with all the nutrients needed to maintain his bodily functions, although I think he developed scurvy in the third year.

So, Johnjo set off on his quest to prove us all wrong. After a few weeks of hearing absolutely nothing, my house phone rang. It was Johnjo. He appeared extremely overexcited as he relayed the fact that he had managed to book us a week in Corfu, but had also done so at a fraction of the price we had paid the year before. After getting explicit confirmation from him that he had actually booked all the component parts of a package holiday, including both the flight and accommodation, I put the phone down genuinely shocked that I may of underestimated his competency all these years.

The big day arrived and we all met up at the airport still with the expectation that Johnjo was going to turn up with a handful of magic beans in return for all our hard-earned money. We were wrong. He gleefully handed us all our boarding passes with a wry smile on his face that appeared to mock the misplaced concern we had all had in his ability to perform simplistic life-tasks. There was at least a flight. After an uneventful journey and a successful luggage reclaim, we stepped outside in to the warm Hellenic air and asked Johnjo what happens next.

“I don’t know,” was the curt response. There it was. It had all been too good to be true.

It turns out that the reason this package deal was so cheap was that our final destination was to be allocated on arrival. We had absolutely no idea where we were going to be staying. We all got on the transfer coach and nervously awaited the result of the resort lottery that was about to unfold. By now it was late evening. The first port of call for the coach was Kavos – famed for it’s abject levels of debauchery and a perfect base for the week for a group of seven lads with misguided moral compasses. Groups of scantly clad girls banged on the windows as we limped through the main strip. “Please let us be getting off here!” our internal monologues cried out in unison. But no – instead Barry and Sheila from Pontefract were in for a week they will never forget as they nervously descended the bus in to the WKD fuelled madness.

On the coach went. Further and further in to the hills as all obvious signs of life began to diminish with each turn in the road. It was pitch black outside now and there hadn’t been a neon sign advertising “Beer and Cocktails” for many miles. Eventually, the coach limped in to it’s final destination. I will never forget the sympathetic look I got from the elderly couple who were still on the bus with us. “Bless them. They’ll get no action here,” the woman’s apathetic smile seemed to say. After checking in at the small hotel we would call HQ for the week, we went for a recce around what appeared to be a small fishing port in the north of the island. On completion of our impromptu site survey, we documented that there were two bars, three restaurants and no beach. Johnjo, you blithering idiot.

We popped in to what appeared to be the more populous of the two bars. That wasn’t really too much of a contest as the other one was completely empty. As we entered the bar, the only other occupants spun round startled by our arrival. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the term or collective noun but our only company for the rest of the week seemed to be a twi-hard of cougars from Derby. “‘Ere girls, the strippers have arrived!” the lead cougar cackled. What on earth had Johnjo got us in to? We were stuck in a remote fishing village in the middle of nowhere, trapped with a group of overtly forward women with over-familiar hands. We had to get out.

The next day we set about trying to formulate a plan of escape. Johnjo wouldn’t be joining us. He was recovering from a near-death experience he’d had that morning. In an attempt to lighten the mood of the the group, he decided to dive headfirst in to the hotel pool wearing an over-sized novelty troll mask. What he hadn’t reckoned on was the mask filling up with water quickly, which then dragged his head down to the bottom of the pool. After a short while, it became apparent that the shock of orange troll hair didn’t appear to be moving much down at the bottom and decisive action needed to be taken. It took three of us to drag Johnjo from the depths of the pool due to the troll mask on his head now weighing more than concrete.

We went for another stroll around our place of confinement looking for inspiration. We had missed it the night before because it had been so dark, but down by the harbour there was a cycle hire business. We could pedal our way out of this mess. We each hired a bike for the day and took the coastal path east away from our resort. After cycling for what seemed an eternity, we stumbled across a small, atypically Greek bar/restaurant which we decided to grab a beer and some lunch at – mainly in fear that we wouldn’t get an other opportunity to do so. Our host greeted us as we parked up our bikes like he hadn’t seen another human soul for years. He introduced himself as “Stevo” and was striking in appearance, mainly because he had bright, red hair which seemed out of place for a Greek man. Stevo explained that a lot of men from Corfu Town had red hair, which I naively assumed was a genetic mutation that had been passed down through generations. On reflection, it was obviously due to an overly randy Scotsman on the first ever package tour to the island. Stevo was exceptionally proud of his resemblance to Mick Hucknall – the only person on this planet to be so.

Over lunch, we explained to Stevo our predicament and our desperation to find some life on this holiday. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any good news for us and went on to explain that this region was synonymous with providing retreats for the more senior holidaymaker. He did, however, offer a solution to inject a little more adrenaline into our stay. His brother-in-law owned a speedboat hire company a little further up the coast which he could get for us at a discounted rate. This was great news! We finished our fish platters, down our Mythos’ and went looking for some much needed adventure.

We ditched the bikes, changed in to our swimming gear and grabbed a couple of crates of local beer for the trip. It was hardly a speedboat – it looked like something you’d see on the local park pond but with an outboard motor attached. Too excited to listen in full to the operational brief and what we should do in an emergency, we loaded her up and powered out of the harbour. Our holiday had at last begun! After about twenty minutes of seeing what she could do, we dropped anchor way off coast, opened the beers and began diving off the boat in to the Ionian sea. After a while, we collectively decided to try and head further around the coast to see if we could find the promised land of a resort with people not entitled to free public transport staying there.

Ppprrr… ppprrr… ppprrr… She wasn’t starting. With every pull of the ripcord, the motor sounded less and less responsive. One of my friends with an ounce of mechanical knowledge peered over the side of the boat for a closer inspection. In our haste to get away and with no regard for the safety lesson imparted quayside, we had managed to bend the propeller out of recognisable shape. We all sat there staring blankly at each other, waiting for someone to come up with a solution to the situation that was unfolding in front of us. Nothing. Looking around at the vista in front and behind us, we could no longer see the shoreline and there wasn’t a single other boat out on the horizon. The isolation we had felt before when we had arrived the night before felt incomparable to being cast adrift with hundreds of square miles of sea water in front of us. We were stuck. Properly stuck.

In desperation, I started searching around under the seats of the boat in case I had missed something. Tucked away under the back seat I found a small, sun weathered rucksack that I was sure didn’t belong to any of us. It appeared to be an emergency kit of some kind. I hurriedly opened it up. Inside was a pair of binoculars, a laminated business card containing the contact details of the ‘speedboat’ firm and a map. The binoculars were of no use when literally the only thing you can see is water. And as for the business card? This was 1999. Not all of us had a mobile phone at this point. And if you did have one, at this stage they were the size and weight of a house-brick and would have taken up a huge amount of your luggage allowance at the airport. Plus, it wasn’t a good look trying to smuggle a phone around that size in your swimwear. I opened up the map. I may as well have been in possession of an A1 size piece of blue cardboard. There were no discernible features on the map – aside from the blue of the Ionian sea. Although at the top of the map was a long red line stating in no uncertain terms – DO NOT CROSS.

I sat back down to study the map further. What could that red line denote? Had we already crossed it?! Before I had the chance to dissect this new quandary properly, one of my friends alerted me to the fact that a succession of boats had suddenly on the horizon. We had been saved! I grabbed the binoculars to take a closer look. At first glance, the boats appeared to be very sleek in design and were moving quite quickly – we would need to be quick to gain their attention. But as they came further in to focus, I began to pick out a few features through the binoculars and my blood ran instantly cold. Gun turrets, machine gun stations, a double-headed eagle embossed on a red background. They were Albanian warships. Suddenly, visions of this holiday being cut short and being conscripted in to the Albanian armed forces started flooding my mind. We had to get out of there – and fast!!

We desperately started trying to paddle the boat with just our bare arms towards where we assumed shore was – whilst consciously not flaying around too much. We didn’t need to create any unnecessary attention now that we were sharing the water with heavily armed death boats. Then, out of absolute nothing, I heard a sound as sweet as any chorus of angels. Prrrr… prrrr.. prrrr…. Ppprrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. A combination of tilting the motor at an obtuse angle and opening the choke right out had managed to get the propeller at least operation again. We could escape! Well, the boat was now moving at just under walking pace – but it was doing so in a direction away from being fired at and towards safety. I don’t remember too much about the journey back due to the large amount of petrol fumes I ingested due to the choke being unnaturally loose – although it did take the edge off the fear I had been feeling. It had originally taken twenty minutes to get out to our ocean playground; by the time we had limped back to shore, a further four hours had passed and the sun had set. Embarrassed, exhausted and in desperate need of clothing and a stiff drink we got back on our bikes and cycled back to the safety of our life-less fishing village.

For the remainder of our time in Corfu, not one of us complained about the quiet, the lack of people our own age or the wandering hands of the cougar collective. We were all alive, dry and not fighting for the Albanian brotherhood.

So, whenever I feel overawed by that feeling of being stuck, where life doesn’t seem to be moving in any clear and detectable direction I remind myself that at least I am not cut adrift in internationally disputed waters facing a militarised fleet wearing nothing but speedos.

The Thin Poo Line

As with any young male, one of the most enjoyable of all the rites of passage that besiege the path to adulthood before the concept of Council Tax and Stamp Duty takes over is that first “Lads Holiday”. A fortnight of inaugural hedonism that grows from a seed planted over a Friday night beer in January. It is then nurtured through months of siphoning every morsel of disposable income into a central fund governed by the most sensible friend. And finally yields in that first sip of continental lager around 6am in the Departure Lounge at Luton Airport

But I didn’t need to go on this ceremonial journey with the rest of my brethren. For I was in love. During the time my friends were excitedly planning their Summer sojourn decked in Ben Sherman shirts and Quicksilver shorts, I had been busy alienating myself from those I knew by spending every conceivable moment with my first real girlfriend. Their palpable excitement about hiring mopeds, jet-skis and foam parties was completely lost on me as I spent weekends in tea rooms and garden centres. That was until I got dumped.

To be fair, she had me pretty sussed from the very start. I had always been a little nervous around the fairer sex and it obviously showed.

“You remind me of that Irish actor off the telly.” Who could she mean after only knowing me for one date?

I started listing the cream of the quintessentially handsome Irish A-Listers. “Colin Farrell? Liam Neeson? Pierce Brosnan?

“No. You know the one I mean – Father Ted’s little dopey vicar mate”

So that was that.  In a time before mobile phones, I suffered the indignity of being dumped via Royal Mail as she didn’t have the heart to do it in to my doleful, puppy eyes. I had the further humiliation of having to walk a round trip of four miles to the Post Office and pay a postage fine as she failed to put a stamp on the letter. If it ever needed quantifying, the cost of a broken heart is £2.57.

With my tail firmly between my legs, I hobbled wounded back to the sanctuary of my circle of friends, obviously hiding the open emotive injuries suffered in break up. All the times I had rejected their invitations to meet up for a drink were instantaneously forgotten and after just a few trips to the pub the opportunity to join them all in Crete was presented in solidarity my way.

And on that morning at 6am at a bar in Luton Airport’s Departure Lounge as the collective chatted excitedly about the exploits that were only a matter of hours away, my mind started drifting to the possibility of meeting that special someone that could take away this pain…

Any romantic aspirations I had about that special liaison on our Lads’ Holiday were quickly dispelled. It was very apparent that we were staying in an unscrupulous war-zone where the possession of a moral compass was not standard issue kit. This fact was immediately underlined as I bore witness at close quarters to a man squat down, defecate into his throwing hand and launch a brown grenade indiscriminately in to the air and land amongst a small gathering of revellers. At least he had the presence of mind to shout out “INCOMING!!” as the freshly baked missile pierced the beautiful Hellenic sunset. Oh, how I wished I was back in Homebase.

Unfortunately, the least academically decorated of all my friends found this turd hurling exercise hilarious and immediately made a beeline for the perpetrator, congratulating him on his exemplary work – without shaking hands. And at that moment of mutual acknowledgement, any chances of me meeting someone new dispersed as quickly as the crowd watching the trajectory of that faecal Exocet. Our collective groups of friends amalgamated, and we forcibly descended into chaos.

As part of this new-found alliance, there had been a Gentleman’s agreement made the previous night to meet at a specific bar the next evening, which everyone unfortunately adhered to. Formal introductions were made, and the apparent leader of this unruly mob was the self-titled “Firestarter”. Not only was this an immediate reference to The Prodigy song that that he belted out with fearsome intent in every karaoke bar, but I truly believed this man could count pyromania as a favourite hobby.

The noise in the bar was now at a deafening crescendo; a raucous and macho outpouring of bravado. I tried to engage with the one in their group I assumed was the least dangerous in an attempt to join the dynamic. More accurately, I was extremely fearful of the consequences of not fitting in. I was given the sage advice by my new associate to never leave my drink unattended whilst in their presence. Before I could ask why, out of the corner of my eye I could see one of their group in deep conversation with a friend of mine, skilfully untether himself from his shorts and urinate down my friend’s leg without breaking eye contact. Never before had I felt such sheer wonderment and deep abject fear simultaneously.

For the next few days, this theme followed. Our two groups were now deeply entwined together – each holistically dependent on the other for differing reasons. They needed a willing audience to bear witness and laud at their incalculable levels of debauchery. We, on the other hand, were now so fearful on the ramifications of splitting from this union that we were readily amenable patsies for their insufferable high jinx. But this friendship did have a shelf life.  They were leaving tomorrow…

That final night had passed without [relative] incident for a few hours and despite the usual levels of extreme chauvinism and distinct lack of social graces, it was a comparatively low key affair. Only a few more hours of  insufferable masculine arrogance and my chances of meeting someone on holiday would surely improve tenfold! Then I overheard the rules of a game being negotiated between the two lead protagonists of our groups and my blood ran instantly cold.

“You get your best four drinkers; I’ll pick my best four drinkers. We go to the bar next door and order that gallon bucket of cocktail. The losing team has to drink the bucket again but filled with the winning team’s piss”

Before I could register my disdain at this proposal, my friend who had gleefully watched that poo sail through the night’s sky a few days previous readily agreed to the terms of the competition and thus an unbreakable verbal contract was formed. What had happened to my life? A few weeks previous I had been happily shopping for hanging baskets. I was now faced with the prospect of drinking a receptacle of undiluted stranger urea. I had to do interject and do something fast.

Discreetly, I disappeared from the hubbub created by the prospect of the ensuing competition and made a clandestine visit to the bar next-door. On arrival, I explained to the unwitting barmaid that two groups of people would be shortly visiting her bar and would be ordering two of the gallon buckets of cocktail. For an additional 20 Euro tip, I asked that the bucket I was to be drinking contain a healthier proportion of ice and that we were given straws with a larger diameter girth than the other group. I may not have possessed the brag and pomposity of the collective, but I did have an A Level in Applied Maths and I wasn’t afraid to use it.

As we all entered the bar, I got the knowing tell from the barmaid. Everything was in place. A large crowd had assembled to watch this horrific debacle unfold. It was now a straight fight between male overconfidence and science. From the first whistle you could tell that this wasn’t the first challenge the opposition had faced of this nature. They fully knew the consequences of losing and that wasn’t an option. To the impartial spectator, it was very obvious that they were seasoned professionals and aesthetically they seemed to be miles ahead of us. That was until we struck ice. Very quickly the amount we had left to drink was dwindling; the fear in their eyes was increasingly tangible. And then followed the very real sounds of victory – our straws were taking in slurps of air as they struggled to finish what liquid remained. We had won. Science and reason were victorious. What ensued was a very discernible inquest between them as to who was responsible for their defeat – all I knew is that I wasn’t drinking piss tonight.

As honourable victors, we didn’t make them consume the equivalent of eight pints of our urine. We had standards. We simply kept that in our back pocket in case we were forced in to another situation we didn’t want to be in for the remaining few hours of their time with us.

A few months later, one of their group made contact with us to see if we wanted to attend a leaving party as the least dangerous one I had identified with from the group was emigrating. Despite the obvious trepidation of meeting these guys again, there was a distinct curiosity to see if their animalistic behaviour was more refined in a different social context. The address we were given was no more than an hour away, so a car-load of us decided to make an exploratory pilgrimage to rural Leicestershire.

After the SATNAV had digested the postcode we had been given and taken us to the intended destination, we sat in the car in quiet disbelief. Either this was the most ironic leaving party destination ever, or my faith in the moral fabric of society was under severe interrogation. We were parked directly outside of the social club of Leicester Constabulary. The urine drinking, poo launching, bigoted underclass we had been forced to befriend were the physical embodiment of the barrier between law and disorder!

Well, everyone needs a holiday…