Tuesday, 28th September 2004.

It's a jungle out there (Hag weekend, part 2)

Simon: Right! Day five: paintball. We're here for fun, and camaraderie. The type of people you meet in the paintzone are the best. We've gotten a lot of new buddies since we started balling...
Lindsey: "Gotten"?
[slight pause as Simon hangs his head]
Simon: Now, although paintball is not real war...
Lindsey: "Buddies"?
[slight pause as Simon hangs his head again]
Simon: Although balling is not real war, it is...
Lindsey: "I've gotten the gun, let's go shoot some buddies!" Ha-ha-ha!
[Simon shoots him in the leg]
Lindsey: Aargh!
Simon: Although paintball is not real war, it is important to take it seriously. You have to have the correct equipment. We always wear the goggles...
[Simon removes his goggles - Lindsey squeezes one off accidentally into Simon's eye]
Lindsey: S-sorry, Si!

If it wasn't the Fast Show running through my head, it was bloody Byker Grove. PJ slowly removes his mask, just as two of the kids round a corner and, evidently in the midst of some schoolboy prank, fire their guns at our future star of Saturday night TV. (The schoolboy prank is an interesting image, actually - why is it that the kids on Byker Grove never seemed to be in school?) PJ drops like a ton of bricks in a loud, carefully rehearsed scream, clutching his eyes. The other kids come running just in time to miss the perpetrators, who've legged it. The Jim Royle-lookalike who ran the club and whose name always escapes me tries to sort out PJ, before Duncan, with a desperate look in his eyes, runs off like some windswept Heathcliff and crouches against the wall round the corner, heaving for breath and mumbling "He canna see, man....he canna see...."

PJ's undoing, of course, was the removal of his goggles. He was still able to lead a relatively normal life afterwards, even going so far as to manage a blind bungee jump ("Ah'm flyin', man!") but it's safe to say that the whole incident could have been avoided if he'd stuck to the rules. Being struck by a paintball isn't especially dangerous unless it's on exposed flesh, or in a particularly sensitive area. I knew this, and was of course determined to avoid any such problems, but with the wedding just two weeks away you can understand why the fear of coming away with a broken ankle, or arm, or leg, was hanging in the air with some trepidation.

We arrived just after nine in the morning - the directions I'd found online having been of some help at least - and booked in. Hot Shots is situated halfway between Cold Ash and Upper Bucklebury, in north west Berkshire, hidden on a long stretch of road that snakes past the one hundred and twenty acres of forest that serves as the playing area. The actual park is largely made up of fairly dense woodland, with paths that lead to the specially cleared areas that serve as the game arenas. Near the loading area and target range, there is a 'safe zone' where no guns are permitted, having been abandoned between games.

You get there and suit up, with some difficulty in my case - the first combat suit had a faulty button and the second had one missing; a problem that was solved with a large stretch of blue tape that consequently made me stick out like a sore thumb (something that a groom-to-be really doesn't want on his stag weekend). The first helmet I picked out was devoid of a visor; the second was fine but when we actually went out to pick up guns I discovered that mine was faulty. I'd incorrectly assumed that it was the ammo cache, and so returned to collect another only to discover that it was indeed the gun that was playing up, so by the time I had found another gun there was no time to test it before we went straight off to the first game. The rules of said game had barely been explained before the whistle blew and we rushed straight into combat, only for me to take a hit on the arm after less than twenty seconds and before I'd had the chance to let off a single round. I don't know why I bothered.

Simon: Right! Three big tips before we start. Shoot it, shovel it, and shaddup.
Lindsey: What?
Simon: Shut up! Right, I've got a standard handgun. Lindsey has one of those fast-action, auto-cocking, semi-automatic babies.
Lindsey: Huh! We're going for maximum splat! Splattus-maximus!
Simon: And believe me, they work. This is pro-ball.
Lindsey: It's gripped!
Simon: Sorted! Right, Linz - when the whistle goes, I'm gonna hot foot it up there. You - cover me.
Lindsey: Right. It's gripped!
[whistle blows]
Simon: Right! Let's paint-ball!
Lindsey: Good luck, comrade!
[Simon starts to walk away, Lindsey repeatedly shoots him in the back]
Simon: What the BLOODY HELL do you think you're doin', Lindsey?
Lindsey: Well you said, "cover me". Hu-huh! Done!
[Simon promptly aims his handgun at Lindsey's crotch and looses one off.]
Lindsey: Aaargh!
Simon: Biggus jokus maximus bollockus number two.

Getting shot does sting a bit, but not for long. I limped off to the side of the arena and rested there for the remainder of the game, trying (not always successfully) to avoid the stray paintballs that were flying here and there. After the game we returned to the neutral zone while the other teams went off and played, and I hoped that my fortunes would improve; thankfully they did. The next game was set in a series of bunkers that surrounded a central area with a flag: our team was charged with defending the flag for fifteen minutes. I hid in the bunker and even managed to shoot at a few people this time, although I'm not sure I hit any.

Considering all the horror stories you hear about injury and what have you, I think I got off pretty lightly. Apart from a stray ball that cut my hand in the third game, the most I had to contend with was a bruise or two to the leg, a gash across my right knee (which happened when I slipped over during a rainy spell) and a little friendly fire from my younger brother, who thought it would be fun to shoot me in the arse. Twice. I decided not to retaliate; he would only have won. Elsewhere, other parties who'd also joined our thirty-strong team decided to spend ammo left right and centre on seemingly foolish exploits: they'd repeatedly shoot each other between games, and let off smoke bombs and paint grenades outside the HQ hut with alarming abandon. I wouldn't have minded, but we could have used them to smoke out the enemy later.

For all that, it was refreshing to discover that very few - if any - seemed to be taking it seriously. There is an awful lot of testosterone at such gatherings (women were present, but relatively scarce) and my biggest fear besides injury was that of winding up as a lead in the next Full Metal Jacket - Gomer Pyle Strikes Back. I don't react well to military style discipline, and suspect I would have hated Alien Wars, which was an indoor experience based loosely on the second film, with a set that was a mock-up of the LV426 colony, assorted actors in Alien costumes, and a bawdy Scottish army type who would berate you as a "useless, third-rate marine". You can take these things too far.

I think that Jon shared my concerns, but neither of us need have worried. Justin, who introduced the day's events, was polite and friendly and made several good jokes (warning us not to run into trees, which is apparently in their health and safety guide). The aim of the day was to have a laugh, and once this became clear I was able to relax considerably, although I must confess to having prickly hairs on the back of my neck when Justin asked if there were any stag parties present. "Hunt The Stag" is a game in which the groom and his best man are given a five minute head start before being pursued by the rest of the team. At least that's the theory. What actually happens is that the moment the stag and his partner turn to run away, everyone else shoots them in the back, and then we all go and play another game. I had been inwardly dreading this all day, but as it turned out there wasn't time. I am Jack's sense of relief.

Actually, one thing I did learn from it was that I'd be bloody useless in the army. I remember the day the Oracle opened, and a Friday shopping excursion with Mike. We wandered around the gleaming corridors, marble floors and glass barriers and high ceilings, and I remarked upon its utter suitability for a major set piece in an action movie, perhaps starring Bruce Willis, and that "You could really blow some shit up here". Mike conceded this point, but added "That wouldn't be you, though. You'd be the fat bloke who gets mown down in the crossfire as soon as the first shot goes off."

He was quite right, of course. Instead we were left with fantasising about the action movie life with a series of short games, interspersed with lots of waiting around. The waiting around didn't matter - to be honest I was glad of the breaks between all the frantic activity, and in any case by the end of each game my helmet was so misty I could barely see a thing, and was desperate for some fresh air. In between we gathered by the hut, drank coffee and talked about The A-Team, and how for a group of supposed crack commandos they were shit at aiming, but that their welding skills were unparalleled. When Jon started talking about Scrapheap Challenge, I suggested that perhaps the A-Team could go on that, or indeed that they could launch a new version: Stationery Cupboard Challenge, starring MacGyver.

It was a long and tiring day, occasionally painful, but always interesting and nearly always fun (with the exception of one rain-soaked arena where I crouched behind a tree, barely managing to avoid the onslaught of enemy fire, helmet steamed up as far as it could go, generally fed up). We held off one side of a ravine, trapped the other team in a tight spot near a pile of barrels, and in the last game the marshals spotted that a lot of people were cheating by sneaking into areas that extended beyond the game zone to take advantage of the opposition, so they promptly changed the rules to "shoot everyone who's out of bounds". By this time most of us were more or less out of ammo: I'd been crouched down by the tyre of a large truck, returning volleys over the top to a few of the red team that were lying on the far side of a bunker. From above me I heard a cry: it was a team-mate inside the truck, asking if I had any more ammo. I took out my last cache and threw it up to him, and then threw myself out from the side of the truck in a last-ditch attempt to take down the enemy. It was all very Hollywood.

We returned home, bruised and tired and badly in need of a shower, but exhilarated. Would I do it again? Probably, if money weren't a factor. Would I take Emily? Only if she really wanted to come. We'd spent part of the day trying to decide which of our friends and loved ones would have enjoyed it, but that question will have to be answered on another occasion, along with what really happened to PJ after he left the Grove.

Talking of PJ: Matt had a splendid idea as we arrived back at Skilton Road, where the girls were still engrossed in their pyjama party. We wandered up the step to the front door and rang the bell, and as Emily approached the hall Matt grasped my arm. My eyes took on a vacant look, and when she opened the door he started to lead me gently in as I cried out in my best Geordie accent "I canna see....I canna see....". She didn't buy it, of course, but it was fun nevertheless.

Last word to Simon and Lindsey....

[Simon and Lindsey are crouched in an abandoned building, loading their guns]
Simon: I think we've got a clear run to their flag from here. You ready?
Lindsey: Yup!
Simon: Wait a minute - you didn't see any of them out there, did you?
Lindsey: No.
Simon: Good. For a moment there, I thought we might be in trouble.
Lindsey: No, we're safe.
Simon: Right - let's go.
Lindsey: It's gripped!
Simon: Sorted! Let's paint ball!
[Picture suddenly slows and turns sepia - they're in Butch & Sundance mode now. Lindsey and Simon run out of doorway into a deadly hail of "bullets". To a sombre piece of music, we can just hear Simon cry...]
Simon: PAINT BALLLLL....!!!
[Roll credits.]

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