When do you become old? When do you stop being young and accept that your changing body is very slowly shutting down, like a laptop running Windows 95 or an ancient golf umbrella?
For me it was 20th December 2014, about 11am in the morning, in a wooded field in Grendon, Northamptonshire, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. I went Paintballing. Paintballing is fun, they say. I got to dress up like a camouflaged fat soldier and run around in ankle deep mud carrying a gas-powered pistol that fires paint pellets at the speed of light. They sting a bit if they hit you. They provided a ‘Darth Vader’ mask for protection that rendered peripheral vision obsolete and also meant that everyone looked the same. I went with my two sons. It was an end of year treat for the under 12 footy team. One plays for them and the other supports them. A real family effort. ‘Don’t shoot me boys, I am your father’, I wheezed through the plastic vent. This had no effect on my little Skywalkers.
The pellets weren’t the problem. I’d cut myself shaving with a hangover and had had a playful puppy bite you where it shouldn’t play. They both sting more. Dressed as a Death Star Dad’s Army Veteran I simply forgot that I was a 47 year man who does very little exercise. I threw myself into Paintballing with all the passion of a twenty-something, forgetting that I could be a twenty-something’s father. I am not, but we are all twenty-something’s in our head, whether we are older than that fabled age or younger, both wishing to be that age for entirely different reasons. If you are one of the twelve year olds I was with then you would ache to be a twenty-something for the dynamism and thrill of being at the apex of your physical prowess. Being 47 I was aching to return to an age where you could sleep through the night without rising for a pee and wondering if you’d turned the boiler off. That said, I was like Sylvester Stallone, yesterday. Not Sly in ‘Rambo’, you understand, more like Sly in ‘Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot’. Nevertheless I was determined to give it my best shot. At £6 per game I could hardly afford otherwise.
Capture the Fort. My finest hour. Pinned down by a barrage of paint we adults sent the tiny ones scurrying towards the bridge. ‘We’ll cover you’, we lied, as they ran into a hail of paint. This gave just enough time for us Oldies to slide across the mud and onto the bridge ourselves. Truth is the first casualty of war. And then I became old. Screaming in my best Hamburger Hill accent I dived forward, upward and onward toward the fort, landing three metres from it with a loud thud that sounded like a sixteen stone man falling flat on his face, chest, ribs and chin. I heard a loud crack. It must’ve been a twig as I landed.
We caught the fort, won the war and were the victors. Afterwards, I ripped my visor from my face and flicked my hair back in a victory flick. It hurt my neck. My ribs started to ache and my left knee was throbbing. I’d spent £50 on paint and I couldn’t get my oversized camo’s off as I had lost the ability to bend. A bath and a nap would sort it out.
A bath and a nap made it worse. I fell asleep on my bruised ribs and woke up groaning and wheezing and scaring the dog and making my wife and children laugh. That’s pretty much the family dynamic right there.
Not all of us have such a clear demarcation to ageing. Many of us simply find that some of the things we used to do become slightly more difficult to achieve as the years progress. Lightbulbs become harder to change as we struggle to read the box, struggle to stretch to screw it in and struggle to remember why we put the broken ones back in a box.
The one thing that never changes, for me at least, is the determination to stay a twenty-something, in my head at least. My eldest son was enthused with adrenalin following the Paintballing and was talking me as I hobbled around the house clutching my ribs and rubbing my knee.
‘Dad, dad, it was great wasn’t it? Dad, I shot loads. Dad, dad, can I ask you something?’
‘You can ask me anything, mate, you know that’
‘Can we go Paintballing again for my birthday in February?’
‘Hell, yeah,’ I said, ‘I slid across the bridge and captured the fort and shot loads, too. Course we can. Do you know where we put the lightbulbs?’