About seven years ago, a few months before my 18th birthday, I got a job working at the local branch of the Co-op. Over the preceding months I had tried, and failed, to get a job in any number of local shops. In every case I was defeated by the mind-numbingly stupid questions most retail chains put on their application forms. After ticking the obvious 'right-answers' for a while I'd inevitably start to overthink things. There'd be a question like "A Crazed gunman runs into the store, do you A: Hide, B: Grab the moneybox and go flying out the back door, or C: Bravely continue to scan items until killed in the line of duty." I'd stare at questions like this thinking "surely they don't expect me to say C, this must be a test of whether I'm a lying cretin or not, I'll put A" and as a result, I'd not even get asked in for an interview.
...In reality my first choice would have been B, I was skint.
I got the Job at the Co-op because of two important factors: 1: the manager, Andy, couldn't be bothered to read through application forms—he preferred to ask a trusted member of staff if they knew anyone who was looking for work, then hire whoever turned up. And 2: My friend Dave was a supervisor there. My interview consisted of Andy sitting me down in the staff canteen and telling me that Dave said I was sane and that the job was mine if I wanted it.
After a few weeks of nervous mistakes, I settled in as a reasonably competent, but certainly not zealous, member of staff. Me and Dave worked together on the Saturday evening shift, which lasted from 2pm to closing time at 10. We'd spend the day serving the nutters and the drunks; providing the yellow-fingered with their cigarettes, the incoherent with their booze. Occasionally our evenings were enlivened by a visit from Crazy Joe, Hag-Lady/Witch-Features, or the incompetent octogenarian shoplifter (never did think of a nickname for her) but for the most part, it was dull work.
The fun would start at about 9:30, when the flow of customers had largely dried up. Paul would wander down from his place of work (I forget what it was at the time) and join us as we picked our way around the shop, facing up the shelves and generally doing end-of-the-day busywork. Using our staff discount cards we'd stock up on beer and Cadbury's eclairs (for Paul), which would be stashed in the office in readiness for closing time. Just before 10 Paul would head round the corner to get us a few pizzas from Domino's while me and Dave heaved the big metal shutters down and closed up shop.
This was all preparation for the weekly meeting of what came to be known as "the Gentlemen's Club." This was a high-class al-fresco establishment for working gentlemen connoisseurs of fine Belgian lager, Italian cuisine, and high-quality British confectionery. We three were sometimes joined by Colin (Sainsbury's), Howie (Pizza Hut), or Danny (Sainsbury's Bakery)—the latter two sometimes supplemented our feasts with gifts of cold pizza and burnt pastries.
The meetings of the gentlemen's club usually took place in Eltham park, near where we all worked and lived. Eltham park is a funny place, it's divided into two halves by the A2 motorway. The southern half is a huge flat field with lots of poorly lit pathways. It's dreary little car-park is a well-known hangout for the area's pervert population, and local youfs used to gather there to get into pointless fights and spray obscene graffiti on trees.
The northern half, on the other hand, is almost entirely wooded, and built on a pretty steep hillside. Curiously, the stabby-stabby hardnuts who wouldn't be afraid of any dark alleyway recoiled from the woods at night, leaving it free for people further down the food chain, like myself. Encircled by the woods and the railway, there was a large meadow, about 200 meters across, in this part of the park. For some reason I never understood, the council always mowed a perfect circle in the middle of this field, like tractor driving aliens, while they left the rest covered by waist-high grass.
It was in the middle of this little circle that the gentlemen's club would meet. It sounds like some kind of occult thing, but our choice of venue was based simply on the fact that it was a long way from the nearest path or streetlight. At night we could sit in the darkness (I use this term relatively, it never really gets dark in London, there was always enough light to eat by and see each other's faces) and see anyone coming long before they saw us.
Given the years that have passed, and the large quantities of alcohol that usually accompanied these meetings, I'm surprised to find that I can actually remember what we talked about pretty clearly. It seems strange now, but most of the conversations at these gatherings were actually on pretty serious subjects. We talked about our relationships, our plans, and our worries about the future. Obviously, these discussions were always supplemented by a constant stream of profanity, toilet jokes, and insults—we were teenage boys after all—but things were generally quite deep.
Most of us were in the process of figuring out how adult relationships, with all their attendant complications and fumblings, worked. I was trying to figure out how relationships worked full stop, having been caught completely mentally unprepared when a girl finally showed an interest in me. Despite what people expect of teenagers, these conversations very rarely drifted into territory that couldn't be shown before the 9 p.m. watershed (as long as you bleeped out all the swearing). I think this was mostly because none of us were really the bragging jock type, but there was also the fact that our social circle was rather incestuous. Dave had known my girlfriend since preschool, while me and Paul had both been friends of Dave's other half for years, lascivious details would have been seen as not only disrespectful, but also as a definite TMI.
Another recurring theme was a desire to know how things were going to pan out... You know how at the end of some films there's a little block of text, just before the credits, that explains what the characters went on to do with their lives after the events described in the film ended? Well, the summer of 2004 had a distinctly cinematic feel for us (I think that's normal when you're 18), and we all wanted to know what was written in that last bit of text.
One one occasion, I remember the subject of weddings coming up, which led to us discussing, then taking bets, on which one of our social circle would get married first. As I recall, my bet was on a Christian friend of ours, because I assumed she'd ascribe more importance to such rituals. I seem to recall that Paul and Dave agreed that it would be Howie, because they thought he'd get married to the first person who suggested the idea, whether he liked them or not, for fear of making a scene.
I don't remember now what the stakes of the bet were, or if there even were any. Seeing as Paul got married on Sunday, however, it seems to be rather irrelevant. None of us picked the right one, so I guess we all have to do shots or down a glass of lemon juice, or something else like that. I think 18-year-old me would have been very surprised by this turn of events. But I think he would have been pleasantly surprised, not only by the wedding, but by how everything has turned out over the last seven years. Mostly by the astonishing fact that I still count these people as some of my closest friends. Of the original 10 or so in the broader group, only two (one being my then-girlfriend) have drifted out of touch.
Although it seems like it was a major fixture in my teenage year, the Gentlemen's Club was relatively short lived. The first spontaneous gatherings took place at my parents' house in February or March 2004, and it became a regular fixture (and acquired its name) when it moved outdoors in April or May. Over the course of that long summer we met on most weekends, and sometimes during the week as well. It stopped being a regular fixture when me and Dave quit our jobs at the Co-op in late August, but there were still a few sporadic meetings over the next month or so. The last one, as I recall, took place a day or two before I left for uni in late September. It was briefly revived in the following summer, when we'd all finished our first years of university, but it wasn't the same somehow. Every now and then, I'm tempted to grab a case of beer, a few pizzas, and head over to the local park, but I doubt that the others—now a married man and a primary school teacher—would be up for that. I'd probably get cold and want to go inside myself after a while.
And Domino's pizzas taste like greasy arse. But then, they always did.