Shortly before I received the news I'd completely fucked up my A-Levels, which looking back was news that in effect marked the end of my childhood, the summer of 1999 life was, for that one cosmic moment, all but perfect.
School was done, my sad and ultimately ill-fated stint at Marks & Spencer complete and the future a blue perfect blank. Soon me and 20 of my best mates were off to Magaluf, on what would be our first and only lads holiday. And years before fear or hard relationships, and the anxious city I live in, in Maga I was happy.
Happiness is relative. I'm sure I've been happy in the fifteen years since Magaluf - because I've got all these little times. Moments like opening the love letter the girl from the estates sent, or the time I was leaving for France and my militantly unaffectionate eldest brother grabbed me for a hug. When Richard Hammond nearly died was good, and I've been happy getting to know my nieces and nephews. But there's the happiness you experience as an adult - the happiness of success, companionship, of feeling respected, of paternal love - and there's the way you feel at 18 as you and the best friends you'll ever make bomb the 5am sunrise on Magaluf beach. The difference between happiness and joy.
All these tough Northern Irish boys, once upon a time they rushed the Mediterranean waters like children, at the end of our first night in the Majorcan beach resort. Watching them as they ran ahead of me I remember seeing a faint vision of lives we would live after the holiday. So much promise. Wonder - what I felt was wonder. So total and so natural that every good feeling since has felt one part a figment of my imagination. A reaching, strained, self-made illusion. Happiness can be more meaningful, and earned - redemptive even, but never in my opinion so pure as my time, my seconds, on that morning walking to the water. Never quite as potent, or perhaps so honest. Yeah, when you're 18, even the island cesspit of Southern Europe is a paradise. Because in the end, happiness is relative, and the only heaven is that of youth.
The chugging airport minibus dropped us to our hotels in the dead of night. Half the group were deposited at Fiesta Jungla, the other at Fiesta Sahara. The previous summer the Jungla had been the scene of a mini-riot when England lost to Argentina in the World Cup and the guests had torn the hotel asunder, and you could still see the effects of the rampage. Everywhere you looked were shoddily repaired holes in walls and boards on doors, or badly whitewashed football graffiti. Even still, all that Disney landscaping, bottled-blue water and pseudo-tropical pool features to us, were the height of Med opulence. The Sahara, however, where I was secreted, was fucking horrible.
Celebrating 26 years of institutional decor this year, the Sahara was a masterpiece of package holiday utilitarianism. Radiating soulless transience, and suspiciously similar in design to a one-corridor prison, the Sahara was custom-built to hold precisely the kind of battery-farm youngsters who cared little about where they stayed in Maga provided it was near the beach. We took one look at the hotel, decided it was amazing, dumped our bags and left to explore the neon fantasia beyond the surrounding quiet.
Those first seven days were like a dream. Here we were, the glowing cherubs of a sore and brilliant Sodom - total bad-news cherubs who love smoking cigarettes and frosted tips. By day, Magaluf's main strip was a thing of indeterminate drabness - a concrete mistake of everlasting inertia, of planned leisure, where the only thing that registered in the blankness where small coincidences in time: some leftover sick, a sad collection of greasy caff chairs, a forgotten jacket, drinks umbrellas blowing down the hill. By night, however, as far as the average nineties 18 year old was concerned, it was pure dynamite - a vibrating, screaming playground where my school friends seemed to burn brighter, where it seemed that I too burned brighter, beneath the slivers of a cheap and terrible hedonism.
The nights would start at the Office Club at the bottom of the hill, whose lush English rep Si McAvoy would fall in love with, vowing to stay on in Maga to work so that he could be closer to her. I don't think she even knew his name. Then it was on to Tokio Joes, which was tiny and crap, and then either Bananas or Jumpin Jaks. In every bar they'd be playing ATB's "9pm Till I Come" or Paul Johnson's "Get Get Down", Ann Lee's "Two Times" or The Chemical Brothers' "Let Forever Be" (remember its mind-bending Michel Gondry video?) and of course, Lou Bega's catchy pop-curio "Mambo No.5" which was massive that summer and will forever remind me of sitting in lurid eateries watching videos of 'When Bullfights Go Wrong' on little fat TVs, posing for increasingly weary group photos.
Inevitably, at some point in the night the group would break apart. Folk would get lost in twos or threes in dingy corners of the town. I'd walk the strip on my lonesome watching lairy pushing matches, crying girls, fighting girls, people asleep on the greasy footpath, piggy-backs, snogging, pile-ons, paramedics crowded around some shoeless fuckhead lying face-down in the street. There was always a gnarly police presence as riot-gear clad teen cops carrying obscene, skelf-y batons patrolled the strip clearing the road of meandering clubbers with swift blows to exposed kneecaps.
We made it to Club BCM on the fourth night. This was the big one, we reckoned. This was what we had come for. BCM is Maga's only super club. In fact it was in reference to BCM that I had first heard the term 'super-club', four years earlier when my big brother had returned from Maga telling tales of a dance citadel in the sun where all your dreams came true - where Carl Cox and Danny Rampling ferried you and a thousand others right the way into the heart of a glorious new future. In the nineties, before retro, it was all about the here and now. When we walked into the complete shit-stack that was the real BCM there was to be heard the wilting, venereal fart sound of some turdy trombone, such was our total disappointment. Quickly we realised we'd each paid 25 quid to spend our evening in a dank, half-empty bingo hall with tinny acoustics and bored bar staff, staring at other groups of similarly deflated teens. BCM was about as super as a broken nose.
All that stupid irresponsible shit your parents pray you don't do given your first taste of freedom, we did it. Excessive drinking, for example, was a given. Bowls, basins, funnels and comedy jars filled with blue, pink and yellow booze launched smeared, fractured nights spent rocketing through snapshot locations: the beach, some basement club, a hotel lobby, the main drag, back to the beach. I still have half-second memories of made-up and close faces, of laughing bent over, of someone I knew kicking me really hard up the ass for some unknown reason, and of sand on my cheek, lying down together in the moonlight looking at stars. I think I remember someone taking a shit in the sea and then throwing it at Cogzy.
More of a dare than a shot, in a vaguely moribund bar off the main drag we each took turns downing a tar-like concoction known to the locals as "una patada en las bolas" or "a kick in the balls". It tasted like death - like a mixture between peat and ethanol with an aftertaste of fishy shit-breath. One-by-one the challengers filled porcelain with black goop as the dentally-challenged barman laughing like the reaper. I myself made it all the way to BCM before shooting half a liquified peppered chicken out my gullet like a Manga dragon.
Then there was the gonzo nautical adventures of Ricky and Cogzy. Pissed drunk one night, during an actual storm they swam out to the pleasure buoy off Maga beach, the idea being that it'd be funny, not to mention really lad-legendary, if they slept there for the night. Complete foolishness. Somehow they survived, however, and apparently even slept. So take that common sense.
By far the gravest of these misadventures, on our second last night one of our party, now a highly successful barrister in Belfast by the way, bit the low-hanging breast of a stripper in the nudey club half way up the hill. Fortunately the boob in question was too sweaty for him to get any purchase on, but nonetheless we were swiftly set upon by knuckle-cracking Med bullet-boys and expelled from the club with scary force.
Don't get run over in Magaluf, your parents will tell you. But I did get run over in Magaluf. I really did, in the courtyard behind BCM as Gerard and myself made our way to a hotel with two English girls. A van had been making its way slowly through the crowds which, unbeknownst to me, was towing a trailer, and when I thought it had passed us I closed in behind its taillights and was duly mowed down by the type of thing a gardener might use to transport firewood.
Needless to say, after witnessing me losing my shoe up the wheel axis of a slightly-larger-than-average Radio Flyer, the girl and her friend gave Gerard and I the slip at their hotel. I was a virgin so in truth I was shitting it anyway. Ger was really mature for our school though and had been shagging since he was 14, so was just flat-out unsympathetic when I showed him the foot-long tyre tracks snaking up my leg. My new white Reebok shoe looked like a meringue.
Out of 24 guys, only a handful of us pulled. What they don't tell you is that Magaluf, or 'Shagaluf' as it's known, is in fact a bit like a hungry all-male island colony with some arcades and about three women. One of which is only a picture of a woman in the local police station, missing, feared dead, since 1987. Only in Mykonos could you find more horny men in a single club dancing together to disco - a genre which, beyond the rave clubs, was in fact was the actual staple dance-form of the nineties. Not a lot of people acknowledge that today.
The slanted gender ratio was particularly noticeable the night we went to see Hot Chocolate at Club Boomerang. Hot Chocolate as in the Brit disco act featuring Errol Brown on vocals.
With Brown wondering where the fuck it all went wrong, they rolled the old coffin-dodger out of whatever box they kept him in and made him dance for his dinner, while a half thousand straight guys screamed their lungs out to the prospect of a semi-famous person singing "You Sexy Thing", as an ageing Errol fought to keep his prolapsed colon in check lest it escape his trousers like a inquisitive toilet-snake.
But the real ignominy was all ours when the rattish MC sat us down for that 'Rock The Boat' dance thing where you pretend like you're on a big party-canoe, bound for mad-town - like this. Sitting on the floor between the legs of a small Spanish looking guy, my dick pressed up against the bum of some other small Spanish guy, it occurred to me that I was probably a complete and utter bellend.
Anyway, the only one of us who pulled proper was a really tall guy whose name I can't remember, whose mum if I recall had caused a stir in our hometown by moving in with the mum of his best mate. The girl he pulled was older, like 22 - a rep for the Fiesta group - who was the day after spotted by the Jungla guys having mad athletic boogaloo in an adjacent flat. We never told him, as he was fully in love with her.
This trailer incident, however, wasn't to be the only time I nearly died on that holiday. The disco-themed "Carwash" foam party was held on a Wednesday once a week at either Bananas or Boomerangs. I don't remember. Actually, Carwash was maybe the name of the club. What I do remember is that, though still in operation today, the sudsy Belsen that was Magaluf's premier foam meet was a straight-up fucking death trap.
I think we were expecting something like a lovely soapy snowfall - to be flecked lovingly with fairly-like motes of white goodness all over our young and eager faces. Instead, after the P.A. had concluded its insane build-up (consisting of Mel Gibson's "Take Our Freedom" speech played over Josh Winks "Higher State Of Consciousness"), when the overhanging foam machine positioned ten feet up from where we stood finally rumbled into life, it merely shat a big sad dollop of white puff onto the four people directly beneath it. So we just waited, and then waited a bit longer, and slowly a crush developed as folk behind us clamoured to get closer to the foam. And that foam, it filled the pit with a deceptive rapidness, and soon we were enveloped. And from that moment on I was in trouble.
For the first 30 seconds I was having fun, until the dawning realisation that, actually, you can't really breathe in foam. About a minute later, unable to move except intermittently, I began to feel the darkness of unconsciousness welling up behind my eyes as Lipps Inc's 'Funkytown' continued unabated.
Panic was setting in. Deep within the sudsy mists I came across Garthy. I was floundering, a cold sweat running down my back, and here's this guy stood zen-like dead centre of the morass with a look of pure serenity of his face. Finally I succumbed to the urge to inhale and sucked a half a litre of Maga disinfectant into my lungs. But still no air.
Maybe it was Garthy's unwitting indifference to my life-or-death struggle that did it, but at that point I snapped. The next thing I know I've got my eyes closed beating faceless bodies ferociously with my fists all around; literally fighting for my life. I heard a girl cry out (yes, I punched a girl), and at one point someone had me by the neck and elbowed my forehead. I wondered how many young men before me had stared death in the face to the freak-ay strains of Peaches And Herb's "Shake your Groove Thing."
In the nick of time I found the chromed banister running along the side of the pit and hoisted myself up above the foam. I was alive. Alive! I looked around me to see a scene of devastation. Half our group were spluttering and gasping for air in the booths around the dance floor, with traumatised expressions on their face and eyes like pink marbles. To my side a girl was being carried out of the foam as lifeless as a doll (hopefully not the same one I had punched) while stewards worked to pluck people from danger from the edges of the cloud. It would be half an hour before my lungs stopped burning.
I found this video on Youtube of the very same Carwash disco. Check out the Solomon Northup-style travails of soon-to-be-blacking-out matey at 0:15, moving on his tiptoes through the foam like a cautious alligator.
It was midway through the second week when the arguments began. Not even the uncluttered minds of teens can withstand the ravages of ten nights straight on the piss, and the cracks were beginning to show. I'm sure there was some private crying going on those last days on the island, aswell as a few clandestine calls home as the group became increasingly tired and emotional. I vividly remember towards the end of the week sitting at a table amongst a thousand sunburnt wankers, watching the nightmare farce that is Pirates (dubbed "The Ultimate Dinner Show"; modelled on that Medieval Times thing in America) and feeling utterly alienated. It was probably the first time I felt the psychological effects of booze. The first of many occasions. Before that, hangovers were just puking and hiding from my parents in my room.
I think the conflicts began after someone climbed over the balcony division into the other Sahara flat and took a shit in their safe. That was the tipping point. Soon everyone was at it. Arguing, that is. Not shitting everywhere.
In our flat one night, Deansy called Ricky something like a "bible-bashing twat" and Ricky ran off with Deansy in tow shouting "Ricky, don't be like that!" and we pissed ourselves then felt inwardly sad. This was Ricky's Christian phase, when he was tee-total and going to church every Sunday with old women. A couple of months before Maga he had delivered his "testimony" (a Christian ritual whereby the speaker explains how he or she came to be "saved") to a packed 6th form drama room; a piss-funny spectacle that i'd pay a grand to re-live. By the following October he was banjaxed most nights and developing a pretty salty rep in Strathclyde Union amongst the local womenfolk.
Si McAvoy disappeared off for three days to a nearby town without telling anyone where he was going, while he visited a girl from school whom he'd been writing Keatsian love poems to since Easter. We thought he was dead. We were almost at the point of drawing straws to decide who was to break the news to his mum when he was found nonchalantly shaving in our bathroom. A lot of aggressive pointing and empty threats ensued.
On the last night I stole Garthy's chow mein Pot Noodle, which when my crime was discovered resulted in a short and unpleasant exchange. "Get it fucking back", Garthy told me. At 6am, I rode my shit little yellow moped round to the shops and back to get a Pot Noodle and finally crawled in to bed like a dying dog.
Paranoid schisms arose from all kinds of matters. Lines in the sand were drawn between the weed-smokers and the non-weed-smokers (the non weed-smokers being all like "you're better off without that stuff" as if we were cooking up a batch of barnyard china, this from the same guys who'd be munching their cheeks out in Northumbria Uni a couple years on); between the swimming pool guys and the beach guys; and between the guys who considered renting mopeds tantamount to suicide (the year before an older boy from a nearby school had died in Tenerife when his moped was struck by a 18-wheeler - the story went by the time he finally died he had endured three 15 hour operations) and the guys who got them, including me, Cogzy and Rusty. Incidentally, eventually I did narrowly escape death on the moped when my sketchy understanding of the Spanish road system put me on a collision course with a keg transporter the size of Berlin, which in no way was as bad as the time I rolled my quad in Malia, exactly ten years later - my final lad's holiday at aged 28, which, unsurprisingly, was also my most depressing.
As you may have noticed by now, nicknames in our school were relatively formulaic. Generally speaking, applying a Y to your name or surname was your nickname. In some cases, though, you might also have been dealt a secondary moniker. Paddy, for example was also 'Peanut' cause he had a tiny head. I was 'Itchy And Scratchy' on account of my excema, while Benny was 'Bennitatzi-Semi-Taffy-Affy-Colonel Kadaffi' as he was good at football like an Italian, had curly hair and Johnny once saw him get a semi. I don't know the circumstances surrounding that last factor. Si was just 'Sleazy Si' for obvious reasons, although briefly he was also 'Inbred Si' when at Aqualand Water Park in Palma we discovered he had webbed feet. For Maga though, we each bought white polo shirts and had embroidered on them special Maga nicknames: Cogzy for example was dubbed 'Clinton' - a reference to his much lamented wanky trist with Natalie Hastings which put paid to his brief love affair with Sophie Herron.
In the final few days we gave up even going to the beach. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting chatting shit in the flat, listening to Elliott Smith and Moon Safari on repeat and eating the arm-sized block of Red Leicester cheese my Mum made me pack, which in her mind protected me from all eventualities from chaffed lips to mass rape. For some reason it made her feel better about my being abroad, but to this day I have no idea how I got a foot-long cheese through customs without at least some questions being asked.
We smoked and drank on the sofa these afternoons, which were those strange afternoons on holidays abroad when the clouds descend, and the grey pall dims the light to an unreal gloom that seems weirdly incongruous with the Med countryside. We kind of just mooched around. Sometime we'd go to a smokey cafe/boozer where they showed pirate copies of The Phantom Menace and The Matrix and watch them in silence, or play some 5-a-side footy, or take photos of each other on the toilet for the laugh.
It was around this time that we flooded our flat. One of the Jungla flats did the same. To be honest, I'm pretty sure it was me who was to blame. I remembered something about wet towels in the bath, and not removing them before showering. And after, like, not turning the shower off. Could happen to anyone, really. We opened the door to the flat to see clothes, disposable cameras, suncream and our porn playing cards afloat on a 6-inch swell of ash-imbued bong water. The cheese survived, though. Like a noble orange oil tanker.
By the end we were dropping like flies. Six of us had fallen foul to some kind of Magaluf vomiting flu; two of us seriously with Chrisy hospitalised and Rusty, on one very scary night, having all but fallen unconscious when running a temperature of 104. We called the doctor who gave us details of where to get the drugs we needed, which was cue for the phantasmic nighttime taxi ride Fergy and I took through the outlying villages, looking for the neon green crosses of 24-hour pharmacies. Quickly I realised that venture even two miles outside the shrill and sickly Magaluf vortex and Majorca begins to resemble Provence in the summer. Even at night, the towns we passed through were touchingly beautiful.
We flew out of Maga on the 31st of August, bleary eyed and brown as berries. Two weeks later we received the results of our A-Levels, and by September we were scattered across the UK. Some stayed in Belfast, some posted in Scotland, while the rest ended up in the North East. And that was the end of that.
Fifteen years on, I wonder if they think about our holiday in Magaluf as much as I do. Maybe it's just my obsessive nature, my need for romance, combining to fantasise the past because the present seems such a fucking scary hardship? Happiness is relative, which is to say that perhaps what for me - a youth-obsessed, vaguely unsatisfied 30-something always looking around other corners - seems now completely halcyon, is to them just a funny holiday they once had, that seldom do they revisit in their minds? Maybe though I should just stop being a fucking pussy, get out of bed, buy a jumper, shut the fuck up and see what some people have to say? On a long enough timeline memories like these become like dreams, but sometimes you have to let real life surprise you. Yossarian lives, I live. There's work to be done.
It really was class being mopped around the floor, though. That was funny.
You can follow John Calvert on Twitter here: @JCalvert_music