We were somewhere around Birstall on the edge of the countryside when the Haribo began to take hold. The lip-clenching sting of the acid, citric and malic, gave way to a powerful sugar rush as a bag and a half of candy chemicals hit my cerebellum. I could see clearly now. I could see that my assistant was holding the map upside down. Panicking, I leant across a terrified looking pair of nuns – why do nuns always look more scared than sacred? – eyes bulging, darting, searching for some kind of road sign. No doubt about it. We were heading the wrong way. Mentally, as well as geographically.
Press the button, the red button, the nuclear option. Ding. Not just the button by our seats, but ricocheting across the vessel, port to starboard, bow to stern, pressing all the red buttons, just in case only one works. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. The bus judders to a stop, I grab my assistant by the arm, a froth of glucose syrup dribbling down his chin, bidding a cheery “thank you, Miss” to the angry looking man behind the wheel as we disembark and surf a symphony of honking car horns to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
As we wait for a ride back into the city, my assistant, hands twitching to the tune of turbo-charged confectionary, unzips the rucksack and we take stock of our supplies. Six full size bags of Tangfastics, the limited edition watermelon slice ones, plus a few minis, three bags of Sour Cherries, two each of Fizzicles and Sour Strawbs, three Tangy Monsters – no wait, two and a half, my assistant has been sucking them out of one bag via a small hole, the clever swine. Plus a bag of Yellow Bellies – what the hell did he get those for, they’re not even properly sour – and a dozen or so packs of Maoam to manage the comedowns. It should be enough; it should be more than enough, but with roller derby you never can tell.
One change of buses later and we’re heading South on the 140. Stung by my assistant’s Tangy Monsters scam, I realise I’m going to have to strictly ration the stash if it’s to last the day. We go halves on a bag of Tangfastics for the journey. I pluck out a handful to nibble on. My assistant immediately shovels the rest into every available facial orifice. His eyes wild with dextrose, he turns to the elderly woman seated behind us. Chunks of foam crocodile splutter from his mouth as he speaks. A fizzy cola bottle juts out from his earhole.
“We’re the finest sports reporters of our generation,” he gurns. The old woman doesn’t look convinced. “On our way to cover the big bout. Are you going?” Now she looks confused, as if she has no idea what he’s talking about. “The bout,” he reiterates. “Dolly Rockit Rollers versus the Brighton Rockers Bruisers. I tell you, those Bruisers are double tough. Mother Trucker eats engine parts for breakfast, Hyde ‘N’ Shriek, Rae Ray Riot, Enyo Face… fearsome. Racey Slamhard has the legs of a gazelle. Anti-Gravetty could jump over this bus. You look like a Dollies fan. Are you worried?”
She certainly looks worried, bewildered even. Who wouldn’t be after that rant from my assistant? I realise I should reassure her. “The Dolly Rockits are a powerful unit too, of course,” I counter. “SlamAbama, KazTration, Holly Sheet, Kilmore Girls… [She looks if anything even more scared now.] All strong competitors, and that’s before you bring Onya Case and Nitro Noush’s ninja jamming or Trashing Bones and Evel Von Detta’s power blocking into the equation. That track’s gonna take a pounding, mark my words.” Our fellow passenger still looks concerned, despite my best efforts. My assistant plucks the cola bottle from his ear and tenders it to her by way of a peace offering, but she’s clearly not a Haribo fan. The bus comes to a slow halt as the driver announces our stop.
“Why did he just shout out Ashbi Patha?” questions my assistant. “That sounds like a curry or something bhaji-like. Is this bus driver running a takeaway restaurant on the side? The health and safety implications don’t bear thinking about. What happens when he takes his hands off the wheels to stir? What’s he cooking stuff on – the engine? Don’t passengers mind him taking the bus off route to make deliveries?” I bustle him off the vehicle, jumping back on to toss a pack of Maoam to the old lady as I flash her a cheerful smile, then quickly jumping back off when it hits her between the eyes (the Maoam not the smile).
As the bus trundles away into the distance, the old lady talking animatedly to the driver about something, we survey our surroundings. A few houses. Lots of trees. The scent of manure. A not too distant chorus of mooing and baaing. All the colour drains from my assistant’s face: “Dear God. I think we’re in the countryside.”
Now let’s make this clear. I’m no fan of the countryside myself (what sane person is?) but my assistant reacts to it even more virulently. The moment he realises he’s in the country, he suddenly starts craving city things; things he knows he won’t be able to get around here. We spy a farming type person doing a farming type task with a farming type implement, and my assistant calls him over.
“Say, yeoman of the soil, I have a hankering for a double skinny decaf mocha with hazelnut syrup. Is there a Starbucks round here? Or a Costa Coffee at a push. But not a Caffè Nero, God no.”
“Oh, you’ll have to go to Leicester or Coventry for anything like that.”
“Not to worry. Just point me in the direction of your Debenhams, please. I need a vegetable steamer, Julien Macdonald bedspread and two bottles of Vera Wang for Men.”
The farming type person blinks and thinks for a minute. “There’s a pub,” he says. Bingo!
Standing outside The Holly Bush, my assistant plucks the bags of Sour Strawbs from the rucksack. “This is a village pub,” he says sternly, “which means anyone non-local will be viewed with mistrust and suspicion. Trust me, I’ve seen An American Werewolf in London, we need to fortify ourselves with these delicious if somewhat robust sweets before we dare cross this threshold.”
Standing at the bar, licking at the patches of sour sugar plastered on our faces, we order two pints of Felcher’s Old Flatulate, which my assistant – somewhat unsteady on his feet as the sugars and acids kick in – ferries over to an empty table as I pay.
“Are you fellas OK?” the barmaid asks.
“Perfectly fine, Sir. We’re here in your quaint village to cover the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals, I mean the Dolly Rockits v Bruisers, as representatives of Her Majesty’s Sporting Press. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you seem quite… twitchy. And your friend has sweets sticking out of his nostrils.”
“We’re from Brighton.”
“Ah,” she says with an understanding nod, turning to empty the glasswasher.
Over at the table, the first swigs of bitter have taken the edge off the Haribo and my assistant is being unnaturally businesslike. “Right, first things first,” he says. “We’ve got to keep this bout report brief. Four hundred words at the absolute maximum. Which means we’ve just got to focus on the facts, on what happens out there on track. I know you’ve gone off on one in previous bout reports, and we all know how many complaints there’s been, so this time no flights of fancy, no stupid stylistic affectations and no writing about yourself. No-one wants to read self-indulgent rubbish like that. People just want to read about the skaters, the athletes, and what happens between the first and final whistles. What’s that?”
My assistant is pointing at the several pages of densely scrawled prose in my hand, the bout report I have been writing since Birstall. I fold it up and put it in my back pocket. He doesn’t need to read it right now. “Absolutely,” I tell him, “you’re perfectly right. Just the bout. Just the facts. Let’s do this!” We clink glasses, down our pints and head out into what is becoming a stiflingly hot day here on the very edge of civilisation.
The lack of a pavement, a fear of country drivers and the welcoming embrace of a ‘Public Footpath’ sign take us on a somewhat circuitous shortcut. I’m busy looking down at my phone, GPS activated, trying to work out where the hell we are, when my assistant grabs my arm.
“Sh… eep,” he splutters, pointing with a trembling hand towards the stinking ball of future cardigans that stands less than ten feet ahead, staring at us with a look of disdain as it ponders its attack. “Do you think it’s seen us?”
“It’s looking right at us.”
“Oh God. Oh God. Shoot it.”
“I don’t have a gun.”
My assistant is wrestling with the upside down rucksack, which suddenly bursts open, spewing its candy delights across the dirt track beneath us. We scoop up the bags and hurriedly re-sack them, all the while keeping our gaze firmly fixed on the hellspawn creation in front of us. “Let’s eat these now, every damn one of them, even the Yellow Bellies,” says my assistant. “That much Haribo will give us superhuman strength to outrun this blasted creature.”
“We can’t eat them all now. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Even if we could find that pub again, I doubt they’d let us back in. These sweets are probably all we’ve got to live off until we can make our way back to the city.”
“We’ll find other things to eat,” he says with far too much conviction. “We could eat the sheep.”
“We’re not eating the sheep. We don’t have any plates. Besides, I’m a vegetarian.”
“These have got gelatine in,” he bleats, waving a bag of Fizzicles in my face. I slap him soundly across the cheek. First rule of Veggie Club: Never check the ingredients on sweetie packets.
We share a bag of Tangy Monsters to calm our nerves, then edge slowly past the beast, baaing occasionally to try and fool it into thinking we’re sheep too. Safely past it, we hurtle across the rest of the field, crawl through a bush, dodge across a road, race down a quiet lane and arrive without further incident at the bouting venue, the Midlands Roller Arena. Some wily entrepreneurs, possibly gypsies, have set up a small bazaar in front of the entrance, offering all manner of cakes and snacks. We purchase a couple of cans of warm Strongbow from the back of a truck and head on in.
The opening bout, Team Sindy versus Team Jem, features mixed line-ups drawn from half a dozen Midlands and London leagues. The second half is just getting underway as we find a space on the bleachers. Whoever allocated the players across the two teams has done a good job as the sides are very evenly matched. Sindy have just shy of a 60 point lead at present, but Jem are fighting back. I keep one eye on the action, the other on my assistant, slapping his hand every time it starts gently tugging at the zip on the rucksack. We’re sticking to a mini-bag apiece for each 30-minute period of derby action. Enough to keep us ticking over without jeopardising the aim of accurate, incisive, award-winning sports journalism.
Some choice jamming from Nottingham’s Louisey Rider and Norfolk Brawd Yours Truly, amongst others, claws back the deficit. For a while there’s only a point or two in it, but Jem gradually start to pull away. Both packs are proving resilient, pegging the jammers back. Croydon’s Agent Cooper, who we know from her other incarnation as a sweary folk singer, takes to the jammer line for Sindy, but the Jem pack are forming solid four-walls at every opportunity and openings are few and far between for the Sindy starheads. Natastrophe and Candy Grrl battle to put up more points for the team in pink, but the purple Jems, their pack militarily marshalled by Lincs Bomber Guns, hold out for a 217-153 victory.
There’s a lengthy break scheduled before the main bout, so I hide the rucksack somewhere my assistant won’t find it, then head out to the bazaar. Perusing the great selection of prizes on offer at the raffle table, I note that the top one is £150 worth of sweets. Crikey, a hundred and fifty nicker of the sweet stuff? There we were thinking of ourselves as keen glucoid adventurers, riding brightly coloured bags of ascerbic gumminess into the darkest depths of candyland, but we’re clearly rank amateurs compared to these Dollies. I ponder buying a ticket, but I’m rightly fearful of what might happen should we win that cornucopia of confectionary. We’ve got enough on our plates making it through the remaining Haribo without causing a diplomatic incident. No mas.
Beyond the bazaar there’s a field full of some kind of crop. The sun beats down. I’m sure the baaing in the distance is getting closer. Best get back inside quick. Rucksack retrieved, standing behind the Perspex crash barrier surrounding the track. Kit checks in progress. Full fourteen lining up for Leicester, twelve (including two debutants) for Brighton. “Zebras,” says my assistant as he joins me and first whistle sounds. Nitro Noush up against Kapow! Noush gets lead, Kapow sent to the sin seats, power jam Rockits, Noush off now too, jammers swapping over in the box, two minutes runs down, 12-5 to the Dollies. “Zebras,” says my assistant.
Racey, Enyo, Anti-Gravetty join the former Concrete Cow at the heart of the Brighton jammer rotation. Onya Case, Noush, Holly Sheet and Kilmore are amongst the procession of star-pantied Dollies. Leicester side getting the better of things at present, but still pretty close in derby terms. Bruisers debutants getting stuck in. Maidenderry tussling with the Rockits pack; Rebel Antiks too, the latter seemingly so fresh to bouting she didn’t have a derby name when the initial line-ups went in. “Zebras,” says my assistant. What the hell is he going on about the refs for?
“Zebras!” he says again, a note of urgency, fear even, in his voice.
Suddenly, it dawns on me. I can see it in his eyes. The rucksack… that damned Pandora’s box of a rucksack… hangs far lighter on my shoulder than it should. I wrestle it open. Oh hell. He found it during the break between bouts and he’s been on a real sour stuff binge. Five big bags. Five of them, torn asunder and clumsily resealed with chewed up gum. Exactly one sweet left in each bag – less suspicious than none at all, he probably thought, could blame it on a production mishap at the Haribo factory perhaps?
I thought he’d gone citric outside earlier when he kept going on about a cartoon minion following him around. Was going to tie him to a tree for his own good back then, until I realised he wasn’t hallucinating and was referring to the Dolly Rockits mascot’s Despicable Me costume (at least, I think it’s a costume), but this time there was no doubt. All that sour stuff, all that invert sugar syrup – why do they have to invert it, those crazy Haribo scientists, that stuff’s dangerous enough the right way up – combined with the still fresh memories of our terrifying encounter with the sheep. He was no longer seeing Team Zebra as people in stripey tops, he was seeing them as actual real life zebras.
I try to think what to say to reassure him, but I wait too long. An Outside Pack Ref comes to a stop right in front of us, just six inches and a sheet of Perspex separating her from my assistant, who lets out a scream, turns and runs straight into a wall, collapsing semi-conscious onto his back, sobbing, babbling about the need for a zookeeper and tranquiliser darts. The paramedics leave their station to see what they can do for him, but he has a sickness that only time can heal.
Back on track it’s 85-58 to DRR but they have four in the box now (one subject to the ten seconds standing rule) with just one blocker on track as Kapow comes in to jam for Brighton. Pulls it back to 85-73. Close game. Only a couple of jams left in this half now. Both teams with a full complement on track for the next one; that’s something of a rarity in this penalty heavy first period. Nitro Noush looking the Dollies’ biggest threat. Sure enough she racks up a hefty haul of points and Brighton are starting to fall behind. 110-88 as the half time whistle blows. Someone taps me on the shoulder.
“Your friend is asking after something,” says the paramedic. “Fantastics? Fangtastics? Something like that. Do you have any of whatever it is he’s talking about? He seems quite excitable. Maybe it will calm him down.”
“Calm him down? Are you insane! What kind of quack are you? Tangfastics are the last thing he needs right now. That stuff’s incredibly powerful and dangerously addictive. Haven’t you got any morphine?”
I need to do something about my assistant. [The paramedics want none of it now I’ve explained the situation – not something they’ve been trained for, apparently.] I take him outside where I tie a small branch to the top of his head, attaching a mini-bag of Tangfastics to the other end, just out of his reach. Put him in a quiet part of the car park and he starts jogging round and round in disjointed circles, his arms flailing as he tries – and fails – to reach the sweets. A crowd of small children gather to watch this spectacle. One wily youngster sets up a ticket desk and starts charging a pound to any adults who want a look. As half-time entertainment goes, I’ve seen worse.
The Dolly Rockits have their own logoed minivan. How fancy is that? They clearly have one of the best run derby set-ups in the country here, covering all bases from their prize-packed raffles to renowned dancing mascot Squeak and choreographed skate out routines. The venue itself is a good one too – apart from being in the blasted countryside, of course.
The Midlands Roller Arena is mostly used for roller hockey, and as I take my place by the Perspex for the second half I realise that this venue is taunting us. Sweat drips down the faces of everyone in the crowd. God knows what it must be like for the players and refs. The venue, however, is acting like the mirage of an oasis in the desert. From the Perspex barrier to the hockey goal markings to the bright white flooring, this has all the appearance of an ice hockey pitch, but one thing gives it away. Because if that floor was ice, the cooling required to keep it frozen would render this whole room – from the penalty seats to the outside line, the bleachers to the back walls, and everything in-between – cold. Beautifully, blissfully chilled instead of terribly, terribly hot.
Someone should invent that, you know. For days like this. Most roller derby leagues take a summer break anyway, so why not fill that break with ‘ice derby’? I can see it now; fur-lined jammer and pivot panties, blades in different duros, referees riding around on mini-Zambonis inside and outside the track. It would be brilliant. It would be hugely dangerous, of course – ice skate blades are fearfully sharp and sixteen to twenty of them flying about as packs collide could be carnage – but at least the venues wouldn’t be so damn hot.
The second half gets underway and is initially a lot cleaner. Both penalty boxes sit empty for several of the early jams. Brighton bench coach Mistress Von Über Vixen and line-up manager Rose Bleed, clad as Malibu Barbie and Ken in keeping with the day’s Darbie Grrl theme, are mixing things up a bit more in the second period, with the likes of Emma the Condemner and Jenni Hamill coming in to jam more. Enyo Face and Onya Case line up against each other several times; this is pleasing, there should be more rhyming jammer pairings in derby. The Bruisers are starting to pick up more penalties now though and the DRR stars, Nitro Noush in particular, are taking advantage of the power jams. Brighton are getting noushed (yes it’s a word, your dictionary is out of date).
Captain Racey Slamhard takes a star pass for Brighton, only to get booted to the box. Despite only having one player out of play, the Bruisers can field neither jammer nor pivot in the next jam as Racey is in the sin bin as both. Travelling A-teamers Dr Whooligan and The Mighty Mighty Bash shout out encouragement from the bleachers, as do vice-captain Rae Ray Riot’s personal fan club; Mistress is up and out in the centre of the track, questioning the ref calls wherever appropriate; but the scoreline is slipping away from the feisty Sussex regiment…
Leicester hit 222, which means everyone in the crowd has to have a drink, or so Holly Sheet convinces the announcer to demand. I hope there isn’t a scoreline where everyone has to have a bag of Haribo… or at least if there is, that my assistant is well out of earshot when it’s reached. Yours Truly is doing a great job of the announcing duties, incidentally, particularly given she’s having to do it in a sauna box venue and single-handedly (rather than the usual derby twofer) after having played in the first bout. What drove her to make her announcing debut today? “I just agree to too many things,” she admits later. Hey, don’t we all? Like that time me and my assistant were covering the Dakar Rally for the Chichester Gazette and a Moroccan barman persuaded us to take a suitcase full of sherbet lemons back for his granny in Moss Side – that didn’t end well.
As the clock ticks down, the only remaining question is whether the Dollies will reach 300. They hit the triple ton exactly on their final pass. Despite a resilient, battling performance, the Bruisers roll out with 112 points on the board. It’s been a noushing, but it’s also been valuable experience for the burgeoning Brighton side; not just in terms of bouting time, but also should they happen to be planning to one day cross the Sahara in ski suits – did we mention that it’s rather hot today?
My assistant reappears, chewing on the mini-bag of Tangfastics that he has finally managed to grab hold of. The small branch is still attached to his head, but I pass no comment on this. In fact, it rather suits him. More importantly, he seems over the worst of the brain sours now. “The afterparty’s in central Leicester,” he says, “away from all this blasted fresh air. It’s in a pirate themed pub. Lots of different rums apparently.”
I shake my head. “The last thing either of us needs after a day on the Haribo is rum. Anyway, we have a bout report to file. We’ll be sensible, yeah. Give the afterparty a miss.”
Five hours later, reeking of Morgan’s Spiced, we clamber aboard the last train back to London. Our first attempt to do so is thwarted by a uniformed platform jobsworth scolding us for trying to enter the driver’s compartment. “I’m perfectly capable of driving, officer,” I tell him. “I haven’t touched a drop. Anyway, how hard can it be? Just point it in the general direction of the tracks and try not to run too many red lights. Do you mind if we take it into Victoria rather than St Pancras? It makes for an easier change.”
My kind offer is rudely rebuffed and we have to join via a passenger entrance. As the train rumbles South, it strikes me that my assistant has been silent for quite some time. He also has an unnaturally beatific smile on his face and his upper lip seems to have swollen. The latter is probably a result of running into the wall earlier. The silence I put down to a monster comedown from Haribo Hill. We only have a few packs of Maoam and an emergency bag of Tangfastics left. Beyond that, we’d have to resort to licking spilt sugar crystals from the inside edges of the rucksack. Hopefully it won’t come to that.
Pulling away from Clapham Junction on the final leg of the journey back to the coast, he finally says something. “Thath wad a goob boud tothay, wathn’th id?” Huh? What’s wrong with his voice? I fear he may have succumbed to tangytongue – it’s a very rare side effect of prolonged sour sweet consumption, but one that can sometimes last several days and in extreme cases may require the tongue to be amputated. I ask him and he shakes his head. “Ith jutht thith gumthielb.” He gives a big smile and I can see that he is indeed wearing a (clearly ill-fitting) roller derby mouthguard.
“My God man,” I splutter. “You’ve stolen one of the players’ mouthguards! You crazy fool! You know how protective those girls are of their gear, and how strongly inclined to violence they are when someone crosses them. That sound I thought was the wheels of the train, maybe it isn’t… Maybe they’ve been following us all this time, ever since we left the afterparty. Maybe that’s the sound of a hundred skate wheels spinning down the aisles of the carriages behind us as they head this way, closing in for the kill. Ready to rip you apart in a maelstrom of Antiks to the groin, Bonts to the stomach and Riedells to the side of the head. My God, by the time they’ve finished with you, you’ll be as finely ground up as the sugar dust at the bottom of a Fizzicals bag. Then, because they know I’m with you, they’ll start on me too. We can’t just sit here, waiting for them to strike. You’ve got to find them and apologise. Beg for your life. For both our lives.”
He smiles again. Does the madman not realise the gravity of this situation? “Ith okah,” he says, “I dithn’th thteal id, ith a sthpare one they thwapped wid me for a rounb ov thrinkths.” Oh, thank goodness for that. I’d ask him why he wanted a gumshield in the first place, but frankly I’m too relieved to care. At the very least it’ll come in handy the next time he runs into a wall.
This sobering exchange has brought me to the realisation that we should knock the roller derby watching on the head, at least for a month or so. It’s just far too stressful. Take up something else; motorcycle stunts, tiger wrestling, a safer option like that. He concurs with my suggestion. We both close our eyes and relax for an hour until the announcement “we are now arriving at Brighton, where this train terminates” jolts us back to life. My assistant looks at me.
“Ith the thecond day ov de Easthbourne Eththreme roller therby thournamend thomorrow,” he says, “Theven bouts. Croydom, Porthmud, Bib Bucths anb Kend.”
“Sounds good. What time does it start?”
“God, we’d never make that. It’s nearly 3am now. We’d have to stay up all night.”
“De dwenthy four hour thop outhsithe de thtathion hath a whole aisle ov Harido thweeths. How many packeths do you think we’ll neeb to thtay up all nighd and all thay thomorrow?”
“To stay up for 24 hours?” I reply. “Fifteen big bags of the sour stuff should do it. Twenty maybe.”
“Leth get thithdy to be on the thafe thide,” he says as the bell above the door of Budgens signals our entrance and we noush our way towards the Haribo display. “And we neeb to ged a bibber ruckthack.”
[Photos courtesy of http://leicesterskaters.co.uk/ and Jason Nightall]