We are in the residents’ bar of the White Hart hotel in Salisbury. It is approaching midnight. The night porter has been roused from his slumbers behind reception and is taking orders.
A nightcap. One for the road. A bird never flew on one wing. Ah, you will. A quick one. A small one. A glass, or a whiskey maybe. A dram. A snifter. A stiffener. What’ll you have? What’ll it be?
The full lexicography of the Irish round-buyer is deployed. We have just played the first match of a three-match cricket tour of these parts, and there are thirsts to be slaked.
Some of the company, who like to be thought of experts in the art of micro-brewing, ask for a local ale called Crop Circle. Others go for Guinness. There are a few takers for the house white.
And then one of our number asks for a beverage that gives us all pause. It makes us realise that the days of singing until 2am, of carousing in local nightclubs and chatting up women, of ending up in taxis on the way to God knows where in the small hours are so over.
It drives home to us the inescapable fact that we aren’t cool anymore. It prizes our clutching fingers from the hem of youth. We can no longer pretend that, if we chose to, we could party like the twentysomethings trooping past the hotel on their way to the Music Box nightclub.
So what is the beverage, ordered by one of our cricket team, which can do all that? A cup of mint tea, that’s what. In fact, looking back, I couldn’t swear that the word “tisane” wasn’t used at some point too.
This request also gives us another vital ingredient of a lads’ weekend away – a slag. Men, when they travel in groups, do not really communicate. They do not discuss the state of their marriages or their jobs. They do not emote, or confide. They slag.
The slag must be something everyone in the group can enjoy. It cannot be too cruel, or too scathing. It cannot be directed at the weakest member of the party. The slag-ee must be someone who can take it without irreparable damage to his self-esteem or his standing in the group. It cannot make anyone cry.
Accordingly, mint tea became a kind of motif for the tour. It was mentioned in every context and at every conceivable occasion. The next day, half way through our innings against Mere Cricket Club, there is a break for drinks. “Jaysus, have they no mint tea?” cries someone.
There are other rules and procedures that all men’s groups follow. Any deviation from narrow “norms” is severely punished. Wearing a pink shirt, for example, or ordering anything remotely exotic at dinner, is putting one’s head over the parapet. Arrows soon fly.
Even exhibiting arcane knowledge can be dangerous. One of the team mentions that the white hart after which our hotel in named is the heraldic symbol of Richard II. Thereafter, he is ribbed mercilessly. (Example: “How’s the Hundred Years War going for you, Dickie?”)
Every men’s trip must have a goal. Sometimes it’s to see a match, or play golf, or simply to get drunk. The pursuit, and attainment, of the goal, also becomes a subject for slagging and is adopted into the group’s “folklore”.
Our cricket team has many such folk stories: the time someone’s trousers fell down while taking a quick single against the Trinity Ladies; the time our opening batsman staggered in after scoring 140 not out and ordered a dry sherry; the time a batter got hit on the nose and bled all over the team kit.
Last week’s tour to the heart of English cricket has added another layer of legends. We lost all three games. We dropped perhaps 20 catches, and held two. We were in bed by midnight every night. It will go down in our annals as “the temperate tour” (or perhaps “the mint tea tour”).
The night after the mint tea incident, I arrive down for breakfast, anxious to gather my troops and discuss tactics for that day’s match. Only one of the team is present. “Where is everyone?” I ask.
“Oh, they’ve all gone to matins in the cathedral,” comes the reply. This, surely, is a first for an Irish sporting tour. First mint tea, and now matins sung by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir.
I decide to join my team. Prayer is probably our only hope.