Stephen put up with the matching shirts, the braying laughter and the constant innuendo (in your end-o, bruv). He even put up with the not-so-surreptitious hiss of Paul’s can of Stella opening when the flight attendant turned her back, just so that Paul would be forced to relinquish it ostentatiously in front of all the passengers.
He was Paul, ‘lead lad’: always up for a beer and a laugh, little bit edgy, little bit wild. When Paul handed out the old penis sunglasses Stephen looked back at him.
“Course - tradition, mate. It’s a laugh” his loose change jangled as his joggers sagged over his pallid, hairy bum. Stephen didn’t think it was a laugh, but the others were creased up waggling the plastic dicks at each other.
17 years they had been doing this. It was the only break some of them got. Look at Joe - two kids and doing shifts in McDonalds. Or Karl, a solicitor now, though you wouldn’t believe this tubby man-child wearing naked women on his tshirt and a plastic dick on his face could be allowed to represent people in court.
So Stephen packed his cowboy hat and his t-shirt with ‘SteveO - Paulie’s 21st Y2K+3 = LADS’. And reluctantly bought his ticket.
“Shots boys?” bellowed Paul, beckoning the attendant, who forced a smile and pushed the trolley over. When she handed Stephen his he refused, trying to apologise with his eyes. But Paul saw.
“Mate - what you doing? Got to have shots on the way to Mag-a Loof oof oof” - the others joined in on the ‘oof’ in a chant - “Or is your knob so small you can’t drink like a lad?”
This didn’t even make sense, but Stephen knew, from experience, that Paul had a tape measure and if he didn’t drink Paul would attempt to remove his trousers right there to measure his penis. So he drank it, grimacing.
In Paul’s world it was always 2003, his hedonistic last year of laddishness before all his mates got boring and settled down. Stephen was the worst offender - daring to move away and missing the regular meets down the Scholars every Saturday. Paul proudly eschewed success, wearing his council temp worker status as a badge of honour and working out a system for taking as many sick days before triggering a disciplinary.
Stephen wound himself up into a ball of frustration as he sat listening to him spouting crap. This year would be the last. And no more penis paraphernalia - he was nearly forty years old for God’s sake!
Then he looked up and saw Joe’s battered daps, his toe actually poking out through the left one. And he saw Joe’s grin as Karl told another filthy joke. How much had Joe had to go without to afford this holiday? How could he, Stephen, ruin his one treat in the year?
And so Stephen slid the penis shades on, joined the conversation and bellowed for another round of shots. After all, it was tradition.