It was a Thursday, it was Spring, it was 1982, it was 16:00, and my mate and I decided to take a trip to Beatties, a large model shop on Pinstone Street in the heart of Sheffield. Using breathing techniques purportedly used by Zulu warriors to cross great distances of veldt at the run - you see? The school library did have its uses beyond calorie conservation and somewhere to look at pictures of unclothed females in biolology texts - we made it to Beatties in less than ten minutes. Weighed down as we were with bags full of exercise books and pockets awash with saved lunch money this was a good time, although Harvey (our passing gamer-cum-Olympic-athlete friend) who had not joined us due to the promise of being able to grope a girl in his form, before her mum & dad got home from work, would have snorted his derision and done it all again before we reached our destination.
This was the day my forays into fantasy changed direction once again, in a way that would seal my fate much in the way that finding a black sword dooms an albino prince.
Beatties was a long store with a ‘T’ shaped layout, managed by a ferocious fellow by the name of Geoff. He was probably a totally decent chap who loved his family, but he ran his store with a rod of iron and with white hair and salt and pepper beard, adding to his apparent hatred of the young, he terrified us. He had that type of bearing normally reserved for comic book villains, and what we thought was a murderous streak.
We were not the kind of kids who got our kicks out of causing grief for the staff of retail establishments, nor would we ever consider shoplifting, having been brought up with a definite sense of right and wrong and an infraction of that sensibility would of course result in instant death, should our parents even think that we’d talked about it, let alone actually pilfer. Nonetheless, in the eyes of Geoff and his staff we were teenagers and therefore based on that, the enemy and already guilty as charged, and Geoff was a 'hanging judge'.
This meant that we normally only visited Beatties with parents or grandparents, it being a given that older relatives added gravitas and a sense of respectability to a young boy, out to spend some readies on the fine wares they had to offer. However, this meant that as my interests were pretty straightforward when it came to model shops – trains and model kits - and the time allowed by my elders to indulge myself somewhat limited, I’d never so much as looked at the arm of the shop that contained radio control cars and Geoff’s tiny office. We knew that to go close to that cramped little room was to invite disaster, probably ending with a spell in the torture chamber we were all certain was down in the basement stock room.
Critically on this day, Alan and I decided to risk the wrath of Geoff and venture into the other parts of Beatties. Alan had been given an old radio control model of a dune buggy and was looking for replacement tyres, and therefore this was, we agreed the best place to make enquiries. Rounding the right hand corner of the ‘T’ that comprised the shop floor, we were met with a truly glorious selection of radio control cars. But wait dear reader… On the right hand side was a wall covered in glass-fronted cabinets that were packed top to bottom with box after box of lead figures and board games with sumptuous, breath taking fantasy artwork.
We were simply blown away by the variety of stuff on display. Until now we had only seen the grubby little bags containing the models we had collected. Now, we were faced with a bewildering selection of themed sets of fantasy miniatures in the most amazingly illustrated boxes. These were produced by an American company called Grenadier Miniatures and, were their ‘Gold Line’ the ‘Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures’.
My head swam, choirs of angels sang out hallelujahs in my brain, and my heart pounded like a racehorse on the final furlong. The world around me melted away and I was transported to a realm where brightly clad elves fought battles with goblins and other strange monsters whilst lithe and limber women disported themselves in chain mail bikinis. My resolve stiffened by the euphoria – and probably the thoughts of chain mail clad ladies - I approached one of the staff. Some respectful questioning gained me the missing piece of the puzzle. The figures I had been collecting were playing pieces for something called a role-playing game or RPG. Crucially, I was handed a fistful of information and advertising that informed the curious reader all about them.
That evening, I literally shovelled my tea down my throat, whisked off my art and history homework and then took a long bath, devouring the arcane knowledge that promised to unlock the mysteries of role-playing games. I was, I imagined, Archimedes in his bathtub. I had reached my ‘EUREKA!’ moment and it was nothing to do with the whereabouts of the soap.
Unfortunately, my grand entrance into the mystical secrets of role-playing were somewhat curtailed a few weeks later, and it was the fearsome Geoff who was to be responsible for my downfall...
You see, following our discovery of the gaming temple at the rear of Beatties, Alan and I had started to visit the store on a regular basis after school and again at weekends, emboldened by our previous experience. We were hooked, but at almost £10.00 for the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules, it was not something we were prepared to cough up good money for quite yet. Still, we imagined the fun we’d have when we got our parents to provide it as a Christmas gift.
In the meantime, I spent the then considerable sum of £4.95 on a box of the Grenadier ‘Gold Line’. I was in heaven when I got home, and spent the entire evening sitting in the kitchen with my decidedly grim selection of enamel paints burying them underneath layers of every colour imaginable. The powerful fumes from the solvent in the paints made me heady and I began fancying myself as celebrated artist who would specialise in selling these tiny works of art for hundreds, if not thousands of pounds.
The reality of my skill at that time was altogether different. When I close my eyes and picture some my early attempts, I cringe, and indeed sometimes break into a cold sweat, particularly on those nights when you can’t sleep and the memories of the whole of your life so far, flash through a hyper-alert brain. Today I am an accomplished painter with an international clientele, but I’m still waiting to rake in the money.
There I go again, wandering away from the plot. I’ll try to keep on the right thread from here onwards, but don’t, I beg you, hold your breath.
Anyway, to continue where I so rudely left off… The following week Alan and I went back to Beatties. Lo and behold, the role-playing section had been moved to the front of the shop and was displayed in the open on shelves, instead of the glass display case. We were somewhat dismayed to see that the games also shared their hallowed ground with a demonstration model of the Atari 2600 game console running a continuous loop of the ‘Pitfall’ game. Of course computer games like this were never going to catch on, were they?
Unfortunately on this day we had managed to miss our usual bus after school and, had tarried a while longer than was wise at Hopkinsons’. Consequently, by the time that we reached our newest temple of all things fantastic, we were pushing our luck for getting home on time. In the same way that Scotland always fails to get to a World Cup final, fickle fate was to lay us low that day. As we discussed which box of Grenadier models would be purchased next, I happened to glance at my watch. This was – being the 1980s - a large stainless steel model of the digital variety, which displayed the time in red LED when you pressed a button. I applied a finger to the aforementioned button and the face glowed, illuminating its terrible, message in bloody brilliance. It was 5:00 PM and we were going to miss the bus unless we ran. So, run we did…
Sadly for us, Geoff ran too, believing we had made off with his beloved stock, he chased us a good 50 yards down the street at a pace not becoming to a man of middle years, before grabbing us squarely by the collars and marching Alan and I back to his office despite our protestations. I tell you, for a man in his fifth decade of life that man could run.
Now, these days, a teenager would simply take up their mobile phone and make a call to their parents who would in turn make a call to the family solicitor and commence suing the company who had dared to waylay and incarcerate their beloved offspring. But remember that this was 1982 and therefore we were as doomed as a doomed thing.
Eventually, after twenty minutes of being held against our will and our bags having been thoroughly searched whilst we explained the reason for our hasty departure to Geoff we were allowed to go.
Red-faced, I was almost an hour late for my tea. I apologised, I grovelled and may have even washed the dishes. What I did not do however was tell my parents what had happened as they would have simply banned me from going into town at the very least.
As I mentioned earlier, I was the 'Beta Test' for my parent’s later forays into raising children and I am sure they were working from the Gestapo training manual as I will briefly illustrate.
When I was younger I was tied to a tree, in a local park by ‘friends’ – Matthew France, you know you did me wrong, that day! Anyway, as a result I spent two hours there and by the time I got home it was almost dark. Despite giving my parents a list names and a full account I was grounded for two months and soundly thrashed. There were in those distant days no ‘naughty steps’, which seem to be built into all modern homes.
Now, about a decade later, I was grounded for a month with a 4:15PM absolute limit for being home from school. Weekends were put on hold and so were all things to do with games – a fate worse than a bloody good thrashing. Life was already shaping up to be a bugger!
I had to linger away a month in my bedroom, mentally fashioning a voodoo doll in the shape of Geoff, using imaginary scraps imaginarily collected in woodwork and sewing class at school - Oddly, Geoff did have a heart attack later, but don’t try to pin it on me as I had given up needlework by then.