The white Vauxhall Astra van would pull up outside our house once, maybe twice a week. Jeff delighted in sounding the horn loudly, every bit as much as he enjoyed the noise of wheel-spinning away from the house minutes later. Pete and I would wince and laugh in the same instant, but mostly wince.
We took it in turns to ride in the front passenger seat. The other would climb into the boot, into the space alongside or behind tool bags and boxes and the detritus of Jeff’s day job. I watched the setting of many a sun looking out of that back windscreen, laid out on an off-cut of dust-ridden carpet, amidst ceramic tile cutters, tubs of grout and tubes of silicone sealant. Out of that window, I would watch our terraced street disappear and the connecting run-down houses and shops and the mess of our life retreat into the distance.
In those days of drinking illegally, Jeff’s white van would repeat that journey maybe a couple of hundred times. The pub – our first pub – was The Journey’s End.
Jeff was already 17 years old and carried off 18 with nonchalant ease. Pete and I were 16. Pete, though cursed with the looks of someone years younger, was brazen enough to walk into a pub without any apparent qualms. I looked my age, I guess, but more to the point I rather responsibly felt it, and each of those early visits to the Journey’s End made me squirm with the dishonesty of our enterprise. Sometimes, we would pick Doddy up on the way. Doddy was the youngest of our group but had all the swagger of someone born and raised behind the bar. Along with Jeff, he also had money – they both left school and went straight into work. Pete’s small income came from the YTS-backed job he held down at the Fosters menswear store in the city. Whatever money I had was relative only to the diminishing balance of a maintenance grant that was to support me through two years of art college.
Not once were we questioned or asked for ID; never truly were we on the uncomfortable end of a circumspect look from landlord, bar staff or local. I think it was quite clear that we were under-age drinkers, but we kept ourselves to ourselves and we put money in the till and yet more in the fruit machine. For a time, we were no less a part of the fabric of that place than the mirror-gloss mahogany tables in the lounge; the 20-piece vending packs of pork scratchings behind the bar; the sole-gripping adhesive tack of the carpets underfoot; and the walnut-shrivelled pink cakes of urinal soap in the gents.
The Journey’s End was a no-frills kind of pub, and, beyond the lie of our age, our visits there were without airs and graces too. The pub served the primary function for us all of not being home. It was somewhere we could begin to measure ourselves against new and different kinds of people – a place to revel in our youth but also our burgeoning, self-proclaimed maturity. It was about embracing a new world that promised many new things. It was about crossing a threshold, from accepting we were kids to thinking of ourselves as young men. All of these things were made possible by being together to order and drink a pint of hitherto unknown liquid.
And it didn’t really matter that we didn’t enjoy drinking. I couldn’t stand the taste of any form of beer and fared only marginally better with cider. Pete was the same. It seemed incomprehensible to me that Jeff and Doddy could actually enjoy the flavour sensations of lager, but the speed and assured swigging of their consumption suggested that they actually might. I never dared question them. I opted for the saccharine sweetness of mass-produced cider, judging it to be slightly less offensive than the lip-puckering bitterness and gym-sock synesthesia of lager. One pint would last me the evening; the same time it took Jeff and Doddy to down two or three. I couldn’t afford to drink any quicker, but nor could I bear to prolong the taste.
Alcohol had never been around us at home when we were growing up. We had never been privileged those specially-dispensed sips from Mum’s glass at the Christmas table; there were never any bottles stashed in a cupboard, concealed in a drawer or stowed in the fridge, from which we might steal a first illicit taste. And so it was that drinking, curiously, seemed the least natural part of going to the pub.
When the time for that first drink arrived, it would predate a first kiss. It would come two whole years before anything close to a first sexual encounter. It would soften some of the other lessons and losses of a hard childhood: a late toast to the passing of a father, to a grandmother and grandfather too; a drowning of sorrows following eviction from our first home. It would mark the end of our school years and ease the haunting guilt of those days and weeks we spent truant.
Of course, the pub was foremost about enjoying friendship. It was about shaping the course that we wanted for our lives; defining the outward appearance of the people we thought it might be possible for us to be. The function of drinking together was something we all needed. For Jeff and Doddy, it was about escaping the confines of nagging family; about having a tale to tell at work the following day, one which would dovetail reassuringly with those from their peers. It was about opting out of one social construct and fitting in with another. The pub was for talking about last night’s television or football, remembering last night’s drinking, and for planning tomorrow night’s television and tomorrow night’s drinking. The pub was for talking about and occasionally daring to ogle the opposite sex. It was for discreetly mocking any easy targets in the near vicinity. For Jeff and Doddy, it was about looking like they understood the algorithms of the fruit machines and sharing their wealth on yet more drinks when they won; it was about firing expletives and a playful boot at the machine when they lost. It was about discovering things for the first time. It was a place to escape to and be secure. It was about feeling slightly high and merry. And on the return journey home, from the back of the van, amidst the dust of grout and the vinegary whiff of sealant, looking out over the shoulders of my twin brother and our best friend, through that front windscreen, as the sodium glow of 20-foot-high lamps swooned in front of us, it was about feeling like we were stretching out into the world.
This is an edited version of a text which first appeared in ‘Gin & It’ magazine.