King’s Meadow is a field in Reading, by the River Thames. It’s mostly grass with a concrete path close to the river, but there’s a small playground near the front. The entrance is about a 5 minute walk from the back exit of Reading station; it then continues until you get to Tesco. There’s a beer festival that runs there every year. There’s now a swimming pool complex with an outdoor heated pool, sauna, and fancy restaurant close to the entrance, but that’s a fairly new addition.
I was 16 the first time I went to King’s Meadow. I’d just started a new school for sixth form, and one of the cool girls invited me along to a social gathering there on a Friday night. I’d sips of wine here and there when my parents allowed it, and I once had half a glass of lemonade shandy at a sleepover, but I’d never really been “out drinking” before. I was way out of my league. Luckily, the other girls had caught on to the fact I wasn’t a hardened drinker, and had bought me just a couple of cans of Smirnoff Ice from the off-licence that didn’t ask for ID. The crowd consisted of a bunch of boys and girls from other private and grammar schools in the local area, all of them much cooler and than I. But after I drank my first can of Smirnoff Ice, my insecurities melted away along with my inhibitions, and I was hit with a sudden urge to talk to anyone and everyone. My parents came to pick me up at 9pm, and my Mum went on a rant about how awful and unsafe the area was and how I was never allowed back there. But I won her round.
Two weeks later, my friend from tae kwon do invited me out with her college friends, and I merged into their group. Every Friday, like clockwork, we would meet at Reading Station at 7pm, and drink WKD, or Smirnoff Ice, or perhaps Strongbow. Sometimes we’d drink at the ruins by an old prison. Sometimes we’d drink in a car park. Sometimes we’d get lucky and someone would have a free house. But if we had no-one where else to go, and as summer rolled around and weather got warmer, we migrated back the original watering hole: King’s Meadow.
The group evolved over time. People came, and people left. One night, a guy I’d made out with the week before had a gathering and forgot to invite me, so I tagged along with my friend from school and her drinking crew; after that the two groups merged. One evening, I brought along a friend from my previous school. He brought his friends. And so on.
One night, my two best friends and I drank a bottle of vodka in the park before a party; shortly after arrival I was sick in the bath. Every Thursday, I’d meet my other best friend for coffee and she would bitch about her friend’s awful boyfriend. After A-levels, me and my friends from school went on holiday to Spain. One night, we met these boys from Leeds on a bar crawl and got into an argument about whether Reading or Leeds festival was superior. We later played “pass the ice”, and I kissed a really hot guy on a beach. On the last night before I left for university, I arranged a night out to celebrate. We went to a club, but before that we predrank in, of course, King’s Meadow. I was excited about university, about leaving home, new friends, and of course, the prospect of hot Eton boys. But I was also excited about what I had to come home to- the legacy I’d left behind. The memories, the nights out, and, of course, the friendships.
Some of those people are still good friends to this day. Some went on to hurt me. Some fizzled out over time and distance. Friendship changes in your twenties. Jobs take up the majority of your time, and romantic relationships become the priority. You discover who you are. When you make new friends in your twenties, you tend to bond over something deeper than a love of cheap alcohol, so you find better matches. But those friendships are different. You know they come second to love and careers. You know that no matter how well you get on, they may fade out when they find love or other friends. You know they may go on to hurt you, so you guard your heart accordingly. Which is fine. But sometimes, I long for the type of friendship you have in your teens. The type where you could get dumped, call them up, and they would be on hand to help drown your sorrows in the park with a bottle of vodka. The type where you’re listed as married on Facebook after a wedding ceremony in King’s Meadow conducted by another friend who ordained himself as a vicar online. The type where you love them with all your heart, like you’ve never been friend-ghosted or faded out when a boy came along, and think you’re going to be best friends forever.
In the first summer of sixth form, I fell in love. We kissed one Friday night at Caversham Park, and soon after, I was hooked. He kept me on tenterhooks for four months, started seeing me then went on a replica date with another girl he’d been seeing behind my back. I drank a lot and cried on a bench in Reading town centre. I cried that he’d ruined my only opportunity to have a boyfriend and get laid before university and now everyone there would think I was a total virgin loser. If only I knew that society’s expectations don’t matter, and I could end up on national TV for not getting laid after university. I spent the next year completely heartbroken, convinced that all men were awful, and that I wasn’t good enough to get a boyfriend. I got over it when I started fancying someone else in my student halls. After many years, I finally realised I am good enough.
Dating changes in your twenties. You start to think about your future, finding a husband, starting a family. You realise you have to be attracted to them, but they have to be a good person too. You try and find the whole package. You discover who you are. Dating in your twenties takes a bit more than finding them attractive and snogging them after a bottle of WKD. You tend to bond over something deeper than a love of cheap alcohol, so you find better matches. But falling in love is different. You know that no matter how well you get on, they might ghost after a couple of dates. You know that if he’s a player, or if he lives too far away from you it’s probably not going to happen. You know they may go on to hurt you, so you guard your heart accordingly. Which is fine. But sometimes I long to feel the type of love I felt in my teens. The type that hits you like the bright yellow school bus in Mean Girls. The type where you hadn’t thought about sex all that much before, but when it comes to this person, it’s all you can think about. The type that’s an all-consuming, intoxicating infatuation. Hopefully the whole package can contain a bit of that too.
Age brings many advantages, like wisdom, money, independence, and a lower bullshit tolerance. But sometimes, I long for the simpler times. The times where a night out cost around three quid and you didn’t wake up the next day with a hangover. Where you didn’t have to think about marriage and a future, but you could just enjoy love in the here and now. Where you didn’t have to spend ages queuing for a drink in a bar that costs £9; you could just get drunk at a shed party and have a blood great time. But life moves on, and we grow from the lessons we learnt the hard way back then. But among all the pain, the heartache, the let downs, and the bad friends, there was the fun, the friendships, and the good times we had drinking in King’s Meadow.