How the Billy Boys and I beat the cistern

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The Independent Online
THE CRACK in the bathroom ceiling turned out not to be nothing, as I had maintained. It turned out to be a portent.

Later that Sunday morning the water which had been biding its time in the darkness of the loft poured into the light - through the light, in fact - and drummed on to the floorboards beneath. Nasty, old water.

It was an alarming situation and one demanding of immediate action. I am only glad I wasn't there.

My girlfriend did what was necessary with the help of Yellow Pages. And don't think I wasn't grateful to her. Of course I was. But I was even more grateful that I had been out playing for Bishop's Stortford Swifts against Brookways Engineering when it all went off.

Across the country, weekend after weekend, the men of England on their football pitches and golf courses occupy the same territory: elsewhere. Does the lawn need mowing? Oh really? So the lawn mower needs sharpening then? And the garden shed, in fact, could do with a sort-out...

Sorry, no can do. Important match against Brookways. Playing a foursome with Gerry, Mark and Simon. Who says there's no hiding place?

For sure, as Bjorn Borg would probably still say, there are times when it's good to be one of the boys. But wait. Another plumbing-related memory reminds me that there are times when it is not so good.

Most teams contain at least one member who can be relied upon to up the ante, someone who will actually chin the mouthy opposition midfielder, who will decide it actually is worth trying to drink a yard of ale, who will announce that the ideal time for a sing-song is right now and bollocks to the lads over there.

Our team - Fitzwilliam College FC, contained a relatively civilised blend of undergraduates; and Richie.

Now Richie, minus beer, was one of the sweetest blokes you could meet. Big, blond, bear-like, amiable. But Richie plus beer was a more unpredictable creature. Actually that's not right. He was entirely predictable. I should have realised straightaway what was going on...

It was a Saturday, and we had travelled over to Oxford by minibus to play a friendly against Balliol College. Fitzbilly boys versus the Toffs.

The match was a satisfactory affair in which the home side accepted defeat with admirable sportsmanship. You can't beat breeding, I always say. That lot would probably all have volunteered to have been second lieutenants during the First World War, leading us over the top with brave futility, revolvers in hand.

But I digress.

The match was a satisfactory affair and afterwards, as was our custom, we went to the pub. Some pubs. By the time we were due to return to Balliol to pick up the minibus and driver, Richie - who had spent some time telling us about his scrapes with the law while following Leicester City - was enjoying himself hugely. Which meant loudly.

Enthusiastically marshalled, the Fitzbilly boys linked arms on the way back, and chanted to those who were interested, "Billy Boys Are On The Piss Again, On The Piss Again. On The Piss Again".

And so we traversed the narrow streets along whose reaches the feet of Thomas More, Walter Raleigh and Percy Bysshe Shelley had once passed. Squeamishly, myself and Tony - a mature architecture student - tagged along behind. On occasions, we chided the wilder members of the group. We were more nanny goats than billy goats I suppose. Richie didn't approve.

As luck had it, there was time for a couple more in the Balliol bar. Oh joy.

After making a widely publicised sortie to the toilet - "God I needed that" - Richie led the group singing, while those college members in for an early evening drink did their best to ignore the heathen presence at the far end of the room.

Soon there was something else to try to ignore. A shallow wave, travelling slowly but sensibly towards the bar from the direction of the WC. I found myself wishing very hard that we were not there anymore.

It took virtually no plumbing skill to ascertain that a person, or persons unknown, had removed the ballcock from one of the cisterns. As I waded back towards our table, Richie - and a number of the others, I noted, seemed to think the whole thing was, well, just a huge joke.

Our driver arrived. Thank you, God.

The Fitzwilliam College bar was packed out when we got back. Richie wasted no time in telling everyone present how the day had gone - and how Balliol College bar had been submerged.

Then he opened my kitbag and invited me to show everyone what I had brought back from Oxford. Guess.