“Why are you drinking squash?” The bewildered question came from our short, but extremely stocky blind-side. “It’s all I can afford.” I said pitifully. “I started my nurse training on Wednesday, and I won’t be paid for a month.”
“He’ll have a pint of lager please barman. Don’t argue with me or I’ll knock you f**king out, alright!” I tried to protest that I couldn’t buy him a pint back, but I swiftly realised that my protestations would be in vain. “Ok, thanks Fletch,” I said and sipped very slowly on the amber nectar.
My name is Richard Phillips. At five foot nine inches I was a few inches taller than Gerald Fletcher, but unquestionably no match for him physically. Then again, very few men were. Over the seventeen years of our friendship, I was to witness colossal feats of strength and physical endeavour that would have been impossible for ninety-nine percent of the population. Fletcher was in his mid twenties and at the peak of his physical prowess, his body hewn from good Welsh granite. He was a stranger to the gym; his awesome attributes were due to the physical toil of hard labour. His power to inches ratio would have embarrassed competitors in Strongest Man contests.
You would want someone like Fletcher with you in the trenches, when your back was against the wall. In a nightclub, when you get knocked unconscious by a bully boy bouncer. Or when you are lying at the bottom of a ruck and the opposition eight are rubbing their hands with glee at the opportunity to do the two step shuffle all over your back. However, I wouldn’t say that he was fearless. What most people didn’t see was the inner man. The soft and caring father, who was not too self-conscious to play the fool with humans of the smallest variety. Years later he was also wonderful with my baby daughter Katie, in the short time that he knew her, and with Jimmy’s kids. He too, had a soft spot for dogs, although he certainly was not the Barbara Woodhouse that he thought he was. Above all, Fletch was a man who shared the same feelings of fear, loneliness and inadequacy that all humans occasionally have to bear.
It was September 1985 and I had completed my A’ levels and spent an idle summer awaiting the commencement of my Nurse training. We talked about the match for a while. I stated that senior rugby was slower than youth team rugby, but was much more physical. I had witnessed the brutality of the rugby played in the lower echelons of the Welsh game from the comparative safety of full back on this occasion. Observing that the more punches thrown by the two warring packs of forwards, the louder the ineffectual referee blew his whistle.
At that time, Dowlais Rugby Football club was a member of the
Rhondda and East Glamorgan Junior Rugby Union, and certainly had its’ share of fighters, from professional boxers and karate black belts to back street brawlers. Ken Morgan, Shushie, Gary Animals, Bowie, etc, etc.
Fletcher finished his beer and went off to the bar, whilst I continued to sip at my slowly diminishing and rapidly warming pint. Fletch returned with two more pints. “Don’t argue” he barked. “Every time I buy a pint, I’ll get you one too.”
You would expect a good mate to look after a skint butty, but in truth we barely really new each other. I had come through the youth team ranks and this was my first season in the seniors. I was still nineteen. Fletcher had joined the club about a year or so before and he was about seven years older than me. I was aware of whom he was, from training sessions and seeing him in the rugby club after matches during the previous season, but you couldn’t have described us as friends.
Following the after-match ceremonies, Fletch invited me to a game of 15-ball pool. I quickly found that he was as tenacious on the green baize as he was on the rugby field. We played several games, and drank more beer. I realised that we both shared a competitive streak, a desire to win, not at all costs, but certainly by using all available legitimate methods.
We had become so engrossed in our battle for supremacy, a battle which would last another seventeen years without providing a conclusive result, that we did not notice the passing of time. On returning to the players bar we realised that all the other players, supporters and committee members had left without us.
We were stranded in Deri. Luckily Deri was and still is only a few miles over the mountain from Dowlais. We decided to wait for ten minutes, phone the club and get someone to return for us. Whilst we were waiting we returned to the pool room and started a new game. Shortly afterwards Billy Beale and Stewart, two Dowlais locals tottered unsteadily into the pool room, evidently much the worse for wear.
Billy explained that they had travelled to see the match, couldn’t find the ground and had spent the afternoon enjoying the excellent hospitality afforded by an adjacent pub. They joined us for a game of pool.
Billy was a short, rotund, red-faced chap with white hair, probably in his sixties, who always had a smile on his face, and an infectious laugh. Stewart was younger, taller and more serious and had often been likened to Windsor Davies, who played the officious Sergeant Major in the 70’s sitcom 'It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.'
When we explained our predicament, Billy immediately offered us a lift. I doubted the prudence of getting into a car that was being driven by a man who had obviously consumed a not inconsiderable amount of beer, but was reassured that he did not drive at all fast. I too had now devoured several Fletcher-bought pints, and so was persuaded to accept this lift.
Fletch and I climbed into the back of the 2CV, folded the window down and held on tightly. There was no need for concern as Billy demonstrated that he had not exaggerated his driving prowess, and we proceeded over the mountain at fifteen miles an hour, with the in-car entertainment at full volume. The 2CV was far too modest a car to possess a radio, so we were treated to Billy and Stewart’s rendition of Windsor Davies and Don Estelle’s version of Whispering Grass, with the back seat backing singers accompanying with their own special harmonies. We arrived safely back at Dowlais Rugby Club some half an hour later, but our night had only just begun.
Bhaji and Chips
After several more beers in the Rugby Club, and a number of retellings of our short adventure, Fletch persuaded me to go to town with him. “I’ve just got to thank Billy for the lift, and then we’ll go,” he slurred. Fletch had an incredible constitution. He would appear drunk after six pints, but as I was to witness on many future occasions, he would seem no more inebriated after a further ten pints.
I watched Fletch as he talked to Billy and then I saw Billy give Fletcher some money. Fletch came back and gave me a tenner. “You can pay me back next week,” he said. I told him that I had seen him borrow money off Billy. “You spent all your money on me and now you’ve had to have a sub off Billy,” I admonished him. Fletch shrugged his shoulders, “Don’t worry about it; I couldn’t see you without a pint, could I?” And that was the end of that.
We trawled our way around the bustling Saturday night pubs of
Merthyr Tydfil town centre, still carrying our kit bags. Most of that night is a blur, a memory that cannot be accessed.
However, we found ourselves outside the Taj Mahal Indian restaurant. “Do you fancy a bhaji and chips?” asked Fletch as he went inside. “We can eat it on the way home.” If Fletcher liked one thing more than beer, it was food. "You can have my money. You can have my fags. You can have my booze. But don't you dare touch my f**cking food!" I heard him say more than once.
Once inside, we went up to the counter, Fletch asked for the feast of two bhaji and chips to take away. The unhelpful waiter refused as we would have to order a main meal. A heated discussion followed as Fletch questioned the validity of the policy, but the waiter was more stubborn than us, and we eventually ordered one curry and chips as our combined resources would not run to anything more.
As we waited for our meal Fletch broke into a song, “Hold me close don’t let me go, oh no, Cos I, I think I love you and I want you to know, do you know.” As he sang, some of the diners joined in and before long a full sing-a-long was in progress, with people now standing on their chairs with their arms around their companions. We managed to sing a couple more songs before our meal was hurriedly put in front of us and we were ushered hastily out of the door by the relieved waiter, to a rapturous round of applause from the happy diners, several of whom had fallen from their lofty perches during the unexpected reverie. Fortunately no-one appeared to be hurt.
Eating a bhaji and chips each would have been a feat that we could have accomplished whilst walking home. Sharing a curry and chips was a different proposition. We put our kit bags on the floor of a shop doorway and sat on them until all the food was gone. Some of it eaten and some of it now worn on our faces and clothes, but all of it gone.
We strolled along, wobbling like two Weebles, continuing to sing as we went. Fletch was living in the Gurnos Estate and I lived in Penydarren and we decided to walk up the Avenue together before going our separate ways. When we reached the bottom of the Gurnos, we sat on a grass verge to have a rest, laying our weary heads on our versatile kit bags. We sang a song or two, and talked a while.
The next thing that I knew, I was being awakened by a warm wet feeling on my leg, and a man asking if I was alright. He was out for an early morning walk with his dog, which had relieved itself over me, and his owner was concerned for me. It was getting light and there was no sign of Fletch. I assured him that I was fine, and soggily made my way home to bed.
And that was just the start!