There are three kinds of paintball experience that I'm aware of:
- The first I've only seen on TV and involves lots of Americans running around multi-coloured inflatable obstacles, shouting and taking it all very seriously.
- The second is more the kind of thing you get at an activity centre - people are assigned to a couple of teams, they're led into a relatively small arena filled with makeshift barricades and fortifications, and then they get to shoot each other for a bit. Half a dozen games, each lasting five minutes or so, and you're done. It's a bit muddy but fun and only mildly like exercise. This is the one to go for.
- The third involves driving to the middle of nowhere and then skulking round a forest for half an hour at a time before being shot in the back by someone you didn't even see.
The last of these was, of course, what Steve, my favourite useless dad, had organised.
At least Steve gave me a lift. We spent most of the journey discussing rugby. I don't know anything about rugby but, then again, Steve didn't really seem to know much either. I think he was trying to pick my brains in order to gain information with which to impress his boss, Scott, who was also coming along. Bearing this in mind, I talked up Japan's chances in the approaching World Cup and mentioned how Simon Cowell had once been fly-half for St Helens. I should probably feel guilty but Steve's had Sarah working all hours on yet another daft marketing project that will probably never see the light of day anyway. Even if it does eventually crawl out into the harsh sunshine, he'll almost certainly take the credit for any good which comes of it. Quite honestly, I'd just like my wife home at a reasonable hour and I'd prefer it if she'd didn't mutter in her sleep about how many free tickets to LegoLand a pair of Crocs is worth. (Don't ask).
Eventually we arrived at a muddy expanse of woodland far from civilisation and squelched the short distance from the carpark (a field) to the reception centre (a dilapidated caravan). We paid and were issued with face masks, camouflage overalls, guns and about enough paintballs to last us three and a half minutes. We were given the 'option' of buying more paintballs. Steve handed over a banknote without particularly looking at it. I don't know if he was expecting change, but he ended up with so many little tubs of ammunition he rattled as he walked. Unfortunately, I had to buy almost as many - Scary Karen and her friends were very keen to wreak some havoc after hearing about the way Steve's friends had treated me at the softplay but some of them were on a budget and I'd agreed to subsidise them. I guess, if I hadn't spent the money, Sarah would have only put it in a pension or something, so I won't really notice the loss for a while, but I still gulped slightly as I gave the guy the cash. (Ach, well, who needs things like shoes or heating when they're old, anyway?)
A long, high wall of netting separated where we were from the game area. We went over to a small cluster of huts, benches and portaloos next to the gateway. Scott was already there. He appeared to have brought most of his rugby club with him, judging by the number of large blokes who were gathered round him laughing. None of them was that young and some of their muscle was turning to belly but they looked like the kind of people you want to make sure are on your side in a paintball match. They looked like the kind of people who would take it seriously and get the job done.
Steve hurried over to join them.
My eye began to twitch. I'd been looking forward to filling Scott full of paint and I'd been hoping he would be surrounded by Steve, a couple of other sycophantic cronies and a horde of scrawny teenagers wearing bandanas and reliving Apocalypse Now.
You never want anyone wearing a bandana on your team. They will run around screaming, fire indiscriminately at anything which moves and then get disqualified for being insane (but not before they've shot you). Having a few bandana-wearing maniacs on Scott's team would have made it much easier to get to him. I didn't fancy my chances against an entire scrum of his burly mates.
Scott came over just as I was slapping myself in the face in an effort to stop the twitching. He gave me a condescending sneer. "Are your friends showing up? How many of them are there going to be? We need to sort out teams."
"Rob can't make it so there should be seven provided the others all managed to find babysitters. That's probably them now."
A black van bounced over the rutted grass and pulled up beside us. The tinted windows gave it an ominous appearance, spoiled somewhat by the enormous dents and heavy rust. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then the side door slid open and Scary Karen got out.
She was wearing a bandana.
Bess, Jess, Tess and Cress got out. They were wearing bandanas too.
"Actually, now I think about it," said Scott, "our team's full. You and your friends will all have to be on the blue team." He pointed over to where a group of scrawny looking sixteen-year-olds were loitering nervously around a picnic table. As I watched, one of them hastily hid a character sheet and some dice. Another tripped over his own feet. All the others were unable to move, transfixed by the very sight of women.
I sighed. At least none of them were wearing bandanas.
We also had Trevor and Stefania on our team once they'd taken the van to the carpark and come back. Trevor, if you remember, is keen on Karen but hasn't quite plucked up the nerve to tell her yet. More importantly, he's built like a truck, has served in the armed forces and can spit a paintball with enough force to stun a rottweiler at twenty paces. Stefania, Karen's Polish friend, on the other hand, barely speaks a word of English and looks like she might blow away in a stiff breeze. When handed her gun, however, she pressed it to her shoulder, sighted a number of targets using swift precise movements and then examined every part of the gun closely. She had it stripped down, cleaned and reassembled with a satisfying clunk before I'd even got the lid off my paintballs. Then she marched away determinedly, as if off to find some Russians.
Trevor and I exchanged glances. "You two stick together," I said.
He nodded and hurried after her.
We were nearly set. A marshal gave us the safety drill, handed out coloured armbands to identify which of the two teams we were in, told us the rules and then lined us up ready to take us to our bases.
I happened to end up standing next to Steve. "We'll try and go easy on you," he said. Then he pointed his gun at my groin and pretended to pull the trigger.
"Don't do that," I said.
"Don't worry," he replied. "It's not loaded."
Then he shot me in the inner thigh.
From three feet away.
It was a little sore.
He apologised profusely as I crumpled to the ground in agony but then his team got led away and I was left to be given first aid by Scary Karen in a location I really did not want her investigating. It's all very well being treated as one of the mums but I draw the line at massage and healing balm. Particularly there. I had to make a limp for it, just to keep my trousers on.
The incident did provide an incentive to our team, however. We headed out to get some payback.
We failed miserably, though. We got gubbed. Half the team ran around screaming, shot anything which moved and then got disqualified for everything from hand-to-hand combat to frightening squirrels. I was shot by one of my own team at least five times. The teenagers didn't know whether they were coming or going. I never saw Trevor and Stefania. I was forever trudging back to the area by the gate to clean myself off and wait for the next game. Somehow there always seemed to be plenty of casualties on the red team too but never enough for us to actually win. It was hopeless.
The day wore on and we got wet and muddy and fed up. We reached the final game and we were becoming desperate. It was capture the flag. We had to get from our base to theirs, grab their flag and get it back to our base without them getting our flag back to their base. We trudged to the clearing which contained our ramshackle, wooden fort and tried to compose ourselves before the klaxon sounded and the game began.
Karen was fuming. She'd thought the squirrel grenade had been a good idea but I'd been standing underneath as the little, paint-soaked critter had sailed overhead. Sure enough, it had looked terrified. She decided to take her frustration out on the teenagers, yelling at them for not working together, her enormous bosoms heaving up and down with fury. The teenagers were frozen to the spot, only their eyes bobbing, as if they were watching vertical tennis.
Trevor and Stefania were still missing. Everyone else sat around looking dejected. I decided that there was only one option left.
"Can anyone lend me a bandana?" I said.
A minute later, the klaxon sounded and I sprinted through the foliage, a borrowed strip of cloth tied round my head. I raced between the trees, not stopping to think, shooting anything that moved. I may have screamed.
Paintballs whizzed past my head. One even bounced off my arm.
But nothing splatted.
I kept going. I kept firing until I had no paintballs left. My lungs burned, stars flashed in front of my eyes. Then I seemed to be through. There were no more enemies about and I kept going. My running had slowed to a wheezing kind of stagger but, with some elation, I stumbled into the red fort and up the ramp to a little room that I knew would contain the flag.
I almost took Steve by surprise. He hadn't expected anyone to make it that far and was busy sending a crafty text on his phone. I'd been too high on adrenaline to expect a guard, however. We both raised our guns. We were only feet from each other in a confined space. Seconds ticked away. It was a stand-off.
"You might as well surrender," he said. "Even if you shoot me, I'll shoot you. You're not getting out of here with the flag."
I lowered my gun slightly, pointing it at his crotch. His eyes widened. "Don't worry," I said, grinning evilly. "It's not loaded."
"OK, OK," he said, putting his gun down.
"Glad you saw reason," I said, grabbing the flag. "Now give me your sock."
"Give it to me!"
"OK, OK," he squeaked, hurrying to pull off his boot and one of his long, woollen rugby socks. I stuffed it in my pocket and ran.
The journey back took longer. I was tired and, since I'd actually managed to claim the flag, I felt I had something to lose. I was more cautious on my return. Still, I didn't encounter any resistance and, as I ducked out from behind the last tree, I wondered whether I was the only one left playing.
An entire rugby team was waiting for me.
"It's all over," said Scott, stepping forward from the middle of the pack. "Give me the flag."
I froze. I didn't know what to do.
Luckily, I was part of a team.
"Now!" screamed Karen and the air was suddenly alive with paintballs. I dived out of the way. Somehow she'd managed to get the teenagers organised. They emerged from the trees and surged forward like an avenging tide of Ewoks. Rugby players scattered. Mums sniped from the woods.
"Now get the flag home," Karen yelled at me from the maelstrom.
I nodded and threw her back her bandana. "Here!"
"Don't you want it any more?"
"I've got one of my own," I shouted, grinning, and tied Steve's sock round my head. Then I escaped under cover of mayhem, ran into the trees and tried to find a route round to our base from a different angle.
I forced my way through some bushes and I was almost there when Scott stepped out in front of me. I stopped dead. He could have shot me but he seemed to want to enjoy his victory.
"Now be a good househusband and give me the flag. This doesn't have to get nasty," he said, gloating.
My mouth was dry. What could I do? Then I noticed that on either side of him the bushes were edging closer. I tried to hide a smile. "Housedad," I said.
"I call myself a housedad."
"Whatever. Just give me the flag." The bushes were right beside him now.
"Well, you had your chance..."
"Drop it!" said one bush gruffly. The other bush hurled abuse in Polish.
Scott's eyes tried to look both ways at once. Then, foolishly, he went for the trigger. I dived out the way again and ran for our base. Behind me there was the unmistakable sound of senior management being painted with extreme prejudice by some shrubbery. I didn't look back.
I stormed up the ramp to our base and waved the flag aloft as my team used up the last of their ammunition chasing the enemy into the hills. I was glad I'd bought so much. It was all very satisfying and money well spent. Of course, I'll probably regret it in forty years time when I have to hobble down to the bowls club in carpet slippers but at least I'll have the memories to keep me warm.
I gave Steve back his sock in the car on the way home. For some reason, he wasn't that appreciative.
Let's just hope there aren't any repercussions for Sarah...
Yours in a woman's world,