Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Friday, 1 February 2013
Not a belated apology
Everyone seems to be making public apologies today, for hurtful comments or actions committed when they were younger, and - not wanting to be left out - I tried to think of incidents in my earlier life which still produce a pang of guilt all these years later. There are so many to choose from, that I just cannot decide which one to share with you - I was an insensitive and precocious little sod and I still have to watch my mouth in certain circumstances, but I'm getting a little better.
There was one elderly gent who used to frequent a wine-bar run by a friend of mine, and he sported a dark blue blazer with an RAF tie, and a handlebar moustache to match. He used to bore the crap out of everyone by lying about his activities in WW2, saying that he was a Spitfire pilot, but we all knew he had been no such thing. Miraculously, everyone humoured him and it was almost sadder to witness that than to get it over with by humiliating him into an admission of the truth before he eventually died - and by the time he did die, he wandered around with a great head of long hair well below his shoulders, a beard down to his chest and mad, staring eyes which showed no recognition of erstwhile friends and acquaintances.
One of his sympathisers happened to own a company which launched hot-air balloons for tourists, and I had been given the part-time job of a retriever for them, driving around the countryside in a Range-Rover attempting to keep up with them as they flew in a straight line across fields, rivers and - in one case - estuaries, either at dawn in the morning, or dusk at night.
On my first trip - a dawn one - they gave me the old boy as a co-driver, even though he had never learnt to drive in his life, and his zero skills in map-reading were yet another proof that he had never learnt to fly a plane either. He had no knowledge of radio etiquette at all, which was - if needed - the final clincher. I really do not know why they put him in the seat next to me at all, unless it was to make my life even more difficult than it already was - a sort of baptism by fire.
We launched the huge balloon from the front of the Royal Crescent, then he stood by and watched as I crammed all the burners, fans and ropes into the trailer of the Range-Rover, then he sauntered up to the passenger seat, shouting at me to get a move on before we lost the balloon all together.
I estimated that the balloon was heading up and out over Lansdown Hill, so started the engine and made my way toward it, as he made a show of pawing over the wrong area of an upside-down map. Within a few minutes of take-off, the pilot came through on the radio as a test, and the response should have been 'receiving you, strength 1/2/3/,' etc. but he said "Ignore it. Complete waste of time!"
Soon, we were at the top of the hill and I spotted the balloon about a quarter of a mile away and heading steadily in the direction of Wick, a small village about 5 miles from Bath. It was travelling at a nice, steady speed and I would have had no trouble keeping up with it and maintaining visual contact were it not for the old Spitfire pilot, who pointed to a lay-by, saying, "Pull over here."
I pulled over, thinking he was about to piss himself or something, but he took out a packed of cigarettes, lit one, then told me to turn the engine off. I was somewhat mystified as to why we should need to actually stop when we were making such good progress, but he told me that it was not a good idea to be too close to the balloon when following it - something that nobody had ever told me before or since. In later retrievals without him, my best one ever was when I drove directly beneath the basket of the balloon for a full 5 miles, laughing in jubilation with the pilot over the radio, such was our good fortune.
So we sat there in the lay-by as the balloon disappeared over the horizon - me becoming more and more agitated, he telling me to shut up and relax as he puffed on his third cigarette. Eventually, I could stand it no longer and started the engine to race off in the direction we had last seen the balloon, in the vain hope of catching it up. We didn't see it again until it had landed - about an hour after it had landed.
As I raced along the country lanes as fast as I thought was safe, I made instinctive decisions as to which turnings to take, and these turnings were always the exact opposite of the ones the old Spitfire pilot gave me, even though he had long since given up staring at the map.
Foolishly, I started shouting at him to read the map and actually do something to alleviate the dire situation he had got us into, then - even more foolishly - I started to actually follow his instructions until we were stranded in the middle of nowhere, miles from the balloon and down a narrow cul-de-sac which made it next to impossible to reverse a 15 foot trailer out and back onto the main road.
We were so far away from the balloon and it's contents, that we actually lost radio contact, so I could not even ask the pilot where he was, let alone us.
I eventually lost all sympathy for the old boy when he turned to me and said, "Now look what you've done! You've gone and got us lost!"
I turned to him in utter hatred and disgust and said, "If I hear one more word from you, I am going to pull up, come round to your door, drag you out by your neck and make you walk home. Now SHUT THE FUCK UP!"
We continued the journey in complete silence, and when we got back to the depot, I got him the sack (not that he was ever paid for the job), saying that I would never, ever go on a retrieve with him again, and if they tried to give him to me in the future, I would walk away from the Range Rover, never to return.
Do you know that to this day, I do not have the slightest pang of remorse for the way I treated the old boy that morning.