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Furry Tongue

Nicholas Jago

Published by Nicholas Jago at Smashwords

Copyright Nicholas Jago 2017



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Authors Note

Hello there. Look, I’ve got to get this across straight away. It’s not an apology; it’s more of an explanation. You see, I’ve got a fairly conversational style of writing. It’s not for everybody, so you might struggle sometimes to deal with the colloquial nature of the text. A friend proof read this book and told me that they were only able to get through it all because they knew me and understood the implied tones and inflections of my voice. Without that inside knowledge, they might have given up. I was faced with two options – either rewrite the 50,000+ words I’d already done to make it easier to follow, or write a lazy introduction of about 400 words to hastily explain what lies ahead.

So… an introduction then. Maybe it would help you if you knew a bit more about me. Well, er, the best way to do that is to read on. I guess it’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation (which incidentally is a genuinely good book, which you should read instead if you don’t make it through this one). What can I give you right now though? Well, I love sport, I’ve tried to do stand-up comedy, and this is my first attempt at a book (which just happens to have taken nine years to actually complete).

So I’m a rank amateur at this type of stuff really. Yes, I’m going to change tenses without warning, I’ll drop in and out of the main story line to visit little side tracks, sub plots and random memories, and I’ll even use bad grammar occasionally. And you know what? I don’t care – I wrote the book for me primarily, and I like it the way it is. It’s not going to win any awards or receive critical acclaim, but I’m fairly sure that it is a bloody good story, which I’ll now be able to re-live through these pages when I’m a forgetful old man. So job done really. You might like it too if you give it a go. No promises or anything, but, well, you be the judge.

Oh yes, I need to do the acknowledgements too. From what I’ve learned from reading actual books, this is where you put in appropriately stupid names of non-existent people. As it stands, I do have some genuine names to throw in as well, see if you can spot them…

For Mum & Dad, who have always been there for me, ever since I was about 7

For Chris & Rich, who put their balls on the line for me, mainly when Skyping

For Nicole, who eventually liked me more than I thought possible

For the Gilberts, without whom there would be no tale to tell, and certainly not the happy ending we are currently being treated to

For Alonso, the man, the legend, the utter randomness

For Lord Fossington-Fossington-Fossington-Gore-Smyth, a gentleman and a scholar

For the Third Duke of Rutland and Baroness B, tea drinkers and curators of the smallest log cabin in the mountains

For Wendy Wang, artistic legend and borderline psychic interpreter of vague design briefs

For everyone we met, danced with, snogged, punched, avoided, and generally infected (with our charm and/or saliva). Well, it’s not really for you, you won’t get anything from it. It’s just an acknowledgement, just a tip of the hat in your general direction

For Ali, Cluff, Col and all the other proof readers. Proof indeed that I’m not very good at this!

For Jason, not my agent yet, because 15% of fuck all certainly isn’t enough to pay his mortgage

For anyone who has been, or is going, travelling. You know, or are about to find out, that the world truly is a bizarre and splendid little oyster









Prologue

The start is not really a great place from which to begin. Sadly, I believe it is traditionally good practice to do so. I’d advise gritting your teeth through this bit and holding out for the amusing stuff that will hopefully follow this dour and uninspiring prologue

That’s what I might have said at the time. Confidence was lower than the mercury in an Eskimos thermometer. The happiness seemed to have been sucked from within me, and I was usually a pretty joyful person. It was partly my own fault, but it had a fair amount to do with The Bitch. I had painted myself into a corner with only her for company, a very silly move (and it wasn’t even good metaphorical paint, it was already peeling and smelling of poisoned fish). I purposely found a job in a bar and worked night shifts so I could be away from her as often as possible (she had a regular nine to five job), but there are 24 hours in a day and some of them had to be shared. Perhaps I should have found a pub a good four hours commute away, that would have helped avoid spending any waking hours in her company.

What I needed was for my tiny, unused testicles to suddenly swell up and become a big, shiny pair of Cahones. Then I could tell her that I was slinging my hook and I had hated the last six months with all of my soul (although there was not much of it left as even that had been worn down). It hadn’t always been bad; the first few months had been very pleasant, but then she had unleashed her real personality and it was a stinker. She bullied, frowned and hissed her way through everything when I was around. She’d once spiked me with the pointy end of a large umbrella. There was less and less sex. She even complained that it hurt her, which I treated as a compliment for about two days until a cold shower reality check knocked me back down to (below average) size.

How could I make the great escape that was so badly needed? Faking my death was completely out of the question, as was organising my mates to kidnap me and stuff me into the back of a Ford Transit, never to be seen again. By her, anyway. If it were right now, I’d simply tell her that she was a total cow and I’d taken to masturbating on her pillow while she was at work. Then I’d hop skip and jump out of the front door, shove two defiant fingers in the air and wish her bad luck in everything she did. What actually happened was possibly the wettest exit since Freddie the Frogman jumped into a lake wearing a concrete oxygen tank.

It must have been around the end of August 2002 that I got the call. This was the catalyst, the real beginning. Time for the action. Time for the adventure. Time for travelling.

When I answered the phone, I was relatively surprised to hear from Gilbert. We’d been mates at University, sure, but not that close. I hadn’t spoken to him since our course had finished earlier that year. It was therefore with some trepidation that I greeted him. Plus The Bitch didn’t like me talking to other people. One time, she looked through my mobile to check my recent call history, and found a random number on it. She shouted at me…

“If I call this and some girl answers, then you and me are over”

“OK, call it then” (Please, please be a girl, I’ve got a 50% chance of getting out of this relationship here. And it’s ‘you and I’, not‘ you and me’, although I just started a sentence with ‘and’ which makes me just as grammatically sloppy as you, even if this is only in my head and I didn’t actually say it out loud)

When she called the number it was a bloke who was best man for one of the guys I worked with inviting me to the stag do. Bugger.

Anyway, it was Gilbert on the phone, and he asked me if I wanted to go travelling with him.

I said yes even before he’d finished his sentence. All I needed was ‘Do you want to go…’. Because I did want to go. Anywhere further than I was currently going, that’s for bloody sure – I’d have spent a month cleaning sewers if it meant I’d have a chance to re-establish my self-esteem. I hatched my escape plan and executed it to perfection. I handed in my notice at work, then drove back home and told The Bitch that I was leaving her. Then I continued to live in the same room as her for a week while I served my notice period, before slinking out with my possessions (the ones that hadn’t been cut up or partially burned) and moving back in with my parents. During this week she spent most of her time locked in the bathroom, crying, and saying things like…

“You’ll never meet anyone else who will treat you like me…”

Which I was very glad to hear indeed, and was the first positive thing she’d said to me in a long while, although she probably didn’t mean it that way.

Let me just set one thing straight though. The Bitch was probably not completely at fault. I surely contributed to my own downfall. I lied to her a couple of times, that didn’t help. I only did it because I knew she’d shout at me if I told her the truth. I never did any serious wrong though. Didn’t cheat, didn’t take class A drugs to get through the day, didn’t hit her back, not even with soft furnishings. I don’t really mind about the year and a half that could be classed as ‘wasted’ with her. It wasn’t wasted at all. I learned a lot – about how to treat people, how to make yourself feel better even when you are in a shitty situation, and how to deflect an umbrella away from your sternum without leaving yourself open to a swift kick to the groin. Without that part of my life, I wouldn’t quite be as strong as I am now. Which is still as frail as an octogenarian with osteoporosis on a balsawood lifeboat in a hurricane, but the doctors tell me I’m getting better.









Chapter 1 – Fight and Flight

Leaving that place and relationship were just the first obstacles I had to get past. There were six months to fill before our journey began. These were also pretty dark times in the scheme of things. I found work in a call centre, which I enjoyed about as much as most people would enjoy being disembowelled with a rusty pitchfork. It also paid poorly, and I needed to save as much cash as possible, or face the prospect of cutting travelling short and returning home to my mother and father’s open wallets. It was certainly a struggle, but there was always that distant light on the horizon of knowing that I was getting the hell out of there soon.

Call centres are not bad places though. I feel like I need to defend them a bit. The people I worked with were all pleasant enough; it was just the monotonous nature of having the same conversation over and over and over again. Imagine if you had to visit your senile grandparents for eight hours a day, five days a week. Eventually the repetition of the same old war stories and tales of tapioca would get right on your tits, I tell you. Most people think of call centres as faceless, dingy holes, who hire annoying staff to lie, cheat or confuse you out of money for an awful product you didn’t actually want to buy. This is sometimes true, but the guys on the end of the phone are mostly just trying to get through the day without being shouted at by a complete stranger, which happened a lot. It happened to me, in New Zealand, but we’ll get to that later…

So that six months was less than perfect, and I was still a bit low. I hadn’t got laid in over a year, which technically made me a virgin again (according to glossy magazines ), and I was touching myself more than a curious, pubescent octopus that realised it had a plethora of different ways to satisfy itself. If my penis could have spoken it would have said…

“Cummon mate, dantcha wanna use me proper like?”

…as it probably would have forgotten how to speak eloquently, it had been so long since it last received enough blood to function properly.

At long last, the moment arrived. Our travels began on March 1st, 2003. Gilbert had been staying at my parents place for a couple of nights, during which time he had managed to convince them that he would look after me in all situations. My godparents had given me the spooks by saying that I needed to wear gang neutral colours in America (the first country of the trip). This advice was not so helpful, especially since they didn’t expand on which colours were ok and which were provocative. I thought about packing a lot of lavender t-shirts, as surely no-one with any street cred would wear light purple. Gilbert assured my folks and me that this was not really the case and two small, white, private school educated lads were unlikely to be confused for hardened hoods, no matter what the hue of their apparel.

He was a very persuasive man. He still is. By the end of the trip I knew him inside out, but at the very start, he was a bit of an enigma. If truth be told, the entire set of events that unfolded was not really due to anything I did. The story is not about me. It is about other people and places. I just happened to be there. Gilbert was the driver, I was the passenger. More often than not he kept you on the edge of your seat, but that was always the best place to be. If you weren’t living life on the edge, you were taking up too much room.

Sitting on the plane to Miami, we talked a bit about what lay in store for us, and he asked me what I wanted to get out of travelling. Gilbert was always very direct; he could guide you into supplying him whatever information he wanted. He could argue either side of a debate, and would usually take a contrary viewpoint to everyone else just to provide himself with some sport. If he had decided that my name was going to be Ethel for the next eight months, I wouldn’t have been able to alter this. Fortunately, he must have decided that in spending that much time with somebody, it would be a silly move to piss them off from day one.

I replied to his question by stating the standard travellers mantra – I wanted to grow, to experience new things, to learn who I was. Clearly I was a walking cliché. Slightly more honest would have been along the lines of…

“I want to have sex and get drunk as much as possible and in several different countries…” although this remains a very British stereotype, so the first answer was just as acceptable.

When I posed the same insightful enquiry to Gilbert he came back with a far more simplistic response…

“I want to find a wife…”

And by jingo he almost found several.



**********



I haven’t really gone into detail about Gilberts motivations and character flaws here. This is because, at this time, I had no idea what they were. He was a strange ginger man, who, if not in the thick of some outrageous adventure involving a gold necklace, a dancing bear and the lady acrobat from the Moscow State Circus, was almost certainly in the middle of telling a story about some similar event or encounter. His tales were legendary, mainly because most of them were true, albeit wrapped in a flourish of exaggerated rhetoric. Bafflingly, most of his yarns ended with him blacking out on the rooftop of a three story building and awaking next morning to find himself wearing only a solitary blue plimsoll. Quite how he can recall what had gone on previous to this was a mystery. As the time elapsed over our journey, more fragments of his personality revealed themselves to me, which I shall drip feed in a similar manner.

Once the plane landed, we alighted and made our way to customs. I dislike airports at the best of times, and American security, especially in the wake of 9/11, was understandably watertight. Not that I’d done anything wrong mind, but I always crap myself in the face of an authority that could quite easily say…

“I’m sorry Mr Jago, we don’t want your sort here, now fuck off back to England please…”

So I was minding my own business and smiling politely at the customs officer, hoping he would let Gilbert and I pass like fibre through the large intestine. But he stopped us, and held me with a piercing glare, before stating…

“Do you know that we’ve had our eye on this guy (motioning one eyebrow towards Gilbert) for some time…”

Before the first traces of urine could work their way into my best pair of underpants, the guy transformed his expression from a grimace into a grin, and I realised he was just playing with the poor little white boy who had lost his mummy and was a bit scared. And then it happened. I have no idea where it came from, but I suddenly lost the paranoid, nervous feeling that I had called my personality for the last year, and just quipped back…

“I should hope so, he’s definitely up to something…”

Wow. That felt good. And before the guy had time to take me seriously and tackle us to the floor, we stepped out of the line and into America, with a new sense of purpose and ready for anything it had to throw at us. Apart from the humidity, which had me pissing sweat so fast that a toad laid its spawn in the little pool accumulating by my feet, and before I could muster the energy to take five steps they’d already turned into tadpoles.









Chapter 2 – Jumping Jack Flasher

Big cities were not really the best place for us as travellers, although it took me a while to realise it. We were only in Miami for one night, which was a good thing. There was still time to crap ourselves, as Gilbert had not actually booked a place in the hostel several weeks in advance like he had told me. Instead he had inquired about booking a dorm room, but had been too tight to actually hand over his credit card details. We were fortunate enough that the place was not full, or we could have been left with the ‘Mary and Joseph suite’ outside. Amid the confusion and apprehension, the other minor issue of how we were getting out of Miami was solved when two guys our age offered us a lift up the coast. Two points here:

1) The guys were staying in our dorm room in the hostel and seemed genuinely friendly and not like the kind of people to drive us into the woods and do nasty things with leather straps

2) We were incredibly naive in more than just trusting strangers. We had planned an eight month trip as far as day one, and left the rest to chance.

In the morning we spent a couple of hours at South Beach, which was just long enough for Gilbert to burn his lilywhite Scottish skin. He is a weird jigsaw of a man really. He was born north of the border, but spent much of his infant life in Sussex, before moving back up to Cullen, Scotland. It was a small town, in between Aberdeen and Inverness, right on the seaside. Mind you, not the kind of Miami seaside we were seeing, it was more craggy rocks and frozen whitewash than sun lotion and G-strings. While at school in Cullen, Gil was bullied heavily for having a ‘posh’ English accent. Well, I guess any English accent sounds posh in Scotland. He was physically and mentally tortured, and he responded in a way that tells you a lot about the man he was to become – he developed his English accent until it was so cut-glass it would make the Queen look a bit rough around the edges. In the face of adversity, he stood firm and never backed down. You’d think that he would dislike Scotland after he was treated in that way, but for some reason he embraced it and is ardently Scottish. So much so in fact, that he decided to wear his kilt on our road trip up the Miami coast.

Our two new mates were going as far as Vero Beach, which was a ten minute drive away from our intended destination – a town called Sebastian. There’s nothing particularly fascinating or alluring about Sebastian, but it is home to one of the most reputable Sky diving centres in the world, or so I’m told.

I over exaggerated earlier (get used to it, I’ll do it a million times through these pages!). We had actually planned the first week of our trip, not just one day. At least, Gilbert had planned the first week, and I was just so happy to be out of the UK that all that mattered was catching the flight in the first place. The plan was simple – fly to Florida and learn to skydive for a week. Hold on, that was Gilbert’s plan. I had no real urge to jump out of a perfectly functional airplane, so was prepared for getting some first class sunbathing time until Gil had filled his boots with adrenaline and testosterone (which sounds like something that goes on in the toilets of a hardcore gay club).

We were picked up by the Skydive Sebastian people carrier from a gas station in Vero Beach, but not before several people had commented on Gilbert’s attire…

“You’re a long way from home sonny”. No shit. What gave it away? Was it the ginger hair, or the shortbread he was eating, or the whiskey filled hip flask, or the big purple, blue and green chequered skirt he was wearing?

The drop zone (or DZ as all the cool cats know it) was unremarkable. Apart from the two massive hangars, it would not have looked too far out of place in a shanty town. However, there was a vibe about the place that seemed to add a layer of sheen to everything. It is difficult to describe, but I was intimidated and excited at the same time. Which was very odd as I was only there to sit on the floor and look up at the sky as my mate hurtled towards me at terminal velocity. Gil had warned me that skydivers as a group did not have much time for those who preferred terra firma, but as we arrived at the DZ everyone seemed friendly and approachable enough.

There was an area set aside for camping, and with storm clouds gathering we pitched our tent in record time to avoid a soaking that would have been more thorough than standing in the fountains of the Bellagio hotel at show time. Gil was a very practical bloke, he was a climber, a hunter and always occupying himself with some activity or other. Putting up the tent fast was a necessity to him – it was a challenge, something to overcome. I just didn’t want my hair or clothes to get wet. I learned very quickly to trust him with my life in any outdoors type of environment, be it in the air, on the ground or underwater. At the same time, I certainly wouldn’t have trusted him to put up a self assembly wardrobe, nor to chaperone any of my female relatives. Any of them.

Sharing a tent with someone is a very personal affair. To be fair, we slept in far more intimate locations throughout the journey, but for that first week we were completely in each other’s pockets. That was a great thing for our friendship, if less great for personal hygiene. Gil had many strengths, but washing his clothes was not one of them, and I believe that he must have damaged his nasal receptors at a young age, or been born without any to shrug off the fug that encompassed him. The tent adopted a stale, musty odour that I eventually got used to, and I guess it killed off any bugs as we never got bitten, unlike many of our counterpart campers.

On the first morning we were woken by the sun. Not by the light, but by the intense heat that was cooking us like two boil in the bag travellers (beer flavoured). It was insanely early, not even 10am(!), and there we were sweltering, stuck to the nylon of our sleeping bags, trying to get dressed in one cubic metre of space without touching each other’s sweaty bits. Gilbert emerged first from the tent, which could possibly be described as being the womb of friendship, although now I sound like a psychologist with an LSD patch permanently stuck on his temple. He strode off to the main hangar, and spent the whole day fraternising with the other folk who liked to throw themselves towards the earth from 13,000 feet. I, meanwhile, had a very productive day, which Gilbert interrogated me about as the light faded…

“Today I learned how to pack a parachute and have booked my individual training for Monday. What did you do?”

“Well actually I’ve been busy” was my reply. “I went for a run down a long straight road, and then when I got back I gave myself a new hairdo – look, isn’t it smart..?”

To this day I still don’t know why he didn’t just knock me out. We were in a high octane, living for the moment, parcel of paradise, and I’d spent pretty much four hours giving myself a metrosexual Mohican. What a pratt.

Gladly, there was no instant backlash, although on one of the rainy days when skydiving was forbidden Gil directed his frustration at me and tried to convince me to admit that I was gay. You might think it was fair game after my earlier hair related actions, but after three hours of protesting I got extremely tired of his company. So I put on my cravat and flounced out of the hangar to end the abuse, stopping only by the reflective glass to check my foundation was still unblemished…

The evening proved to be a better bonding time, as neither of us had anything better to do than spend our savings at the bar. This was the real highlight, where the action of the day and many years past was recounted in a glut of glorious Technicolor and massive lies. Everyone gathered around to listen and pipe up with their own stories. The barman drank with the rest of us, and a really easy atmosphere was created where no-one cared if you’d done one jump or a thousand. My problem was that I’d done zero, and I felt a bit on the outside.

After only two days of sitting on the grass, staring up into the crystal clear, blue sky, my interest in Skydiving began to grow. It may have been for fear of spending a whole week in the company of people who did it every day; feeling just like a celibate eunuch dropping round to an orgy – knowing that everyone else is enjoying it and you just have to bask in their reflected glory. Or it may have been seeing the eyes of those people who landed, glistening with intensity, looking pumped and impatient to do it all again.

So I decided to give it a go. When most people do skydiving for the first time, they do a tandem jump. This involves being strapped to an instructor who claims to have never done this before and fakes a panic attack on the ascent in the little Cessna plane. The instructor then jumps out with you attached, and whoops and hollers at the back of your head, until your ears bleed a touch. Then they pull the parachute cord and you become castrated when the harness suddenly grips as the canopy fills with air. I was not going to do it this way – I wanted to be the master of my own destiny, and this meant completing the one day training course that Gilbert was booked into, so that I could jump out with my very own parachute on. There would be two instructors with me, one on either side, and they would hold onto tabs on my jumpsuit, but I would control my basic movement and also pull my own parachute. For those of you who guffaw at the thought of someone falling through the air trying to control their movement, let me tell you that you can pretty much go in any direction you want, apart from up. It really does feel like flying, and was an amazing experience (oops, clichéd traveller alert!).

Our training was taken by a man called Uwe (pronounce Uber). He was big, strong and utterly mental, but was a good instructor and covered everything that we needed to know about how to not die. He also talked about the view of the coastline from the air, and the fact that we didn’t want to land in the water as the massive sharks would quite possibly enjoy us as a light snack.

Our jump was the next morning, and Uwe was going to be one of the instructors on my side, but he was nowhere to be seen. Literally minutes before take-off, he sauntered up and gave me a small backslap that nearly forced my lungs out through my mouth hole.

“Hi Uwe” I said, in a quivering teenage breaky style voice that didn’t quite manage to cover up my trepidation, “where have you been?”

“I went surfing” he droned in a tone not dissimilar to that of the Terminator.

“Are you serious? I though there were sharks?”

“They don’t bother me.”

Shit a brick. I was about to jump out of a plane with a man who cared little for his own personal safety – which meant he’d probably not got much respect for my life either. It wasn’t too late to back out. They only charge you the full fee once the plane takes off, which I thought was very fair, until I realised that the fear probably wouldn’t set in properly until after we were off the ground. I was loaded into the plane first, which logically meant that I would be last out. I knew immediately that they had done this because I was the highest risk of not actually jumping, which spurred me on to prove them all wrong. Gilbert was just next to me, and as the engines started up and we began to move, I could see fireworks exploding inside his eyes as the adrenaline rush began to surge. Sadly, I was feeling the fireworks exploding in my colon. I had not been this nervous since opening the batting in the Middlesex Cricket Club Under 15 Grand Final, and let me tell you that was seriously scary – the opposition had seven county players! Just before he jumped, Gil turned around and shook my hand. Then he disappeared while flashing a grin, and I watched him fall away like a tiny speck of grated carrot toppling from a rather lofty salad.

I gulped, drew breath. Suddenly the massive hulking frame of Uwe was in the door, beaconing me to follow. I assumed the position, which was half outside the door, slightly crouched, and went through the final checks: parachute – yes; instructors, yes; altometer, yes; sanity, no. I then motioned to my instructors that I was ready, and flung myself out into the Florida sunshine.

From 13,000 feet to the ground would take about a minute and a half without a parachute, but I wouldn’t advise testing the timings as you’re likely to end up in a bit of a mess. I had been told to pull my parachute at about 6,000 feet, which I duly did. There was a moment of panic as I saw that my line was twisted, but a simple roll of the shoulders fixed the issue. I daren’t tell you about the minute of freefall – I simply recommend that you find out for yourself, as it was incredibly liberating and jolly good fun. No words can really convey the feelings I felt, and I’m sure everyone else has different reactions to it. As for the time under canopy, well that was simply sensational. It took a good five minutes before I reached the ground after the chute unfurled, and most of this was spent gaping in awe at the coastline, which sparkled in the sunshine. The last minute was spent trying to navigate my way back to the DZ for landing. It’s impossible to practice using a parachute until you are actually in the air, and I’m sure my legs were doing the ‘bicycle’ motion as I desperately scrabbled home into the wind. The actual touchdown was almost perfect – soft knees, meet the ground, and stand up in one motion. Unfortunately I had landed seven miles away. Not really, I was a bit off the designated landing spot, but still inside the DZ and exceptionally happy. As soon as my chute was off, I hot footed it to the hangar where Gilbert was waiting, beaming all over. We’d struck a new level of mateship today, and it was far from over. All we needed was for the bar to open.

Alcohol, as it will be demonstrated throughout this book, is one of the most important ingredients in the travelling casserole. Don’t get me wrong – you can create a fabulous dish without ever touching it, but when you do include a few drops of amber nectar or fermented fruit juice, the dinner plate of life usually tastes more interesting. Please also remember that interesting does not necessarily mean better. There are plenty of bad times to be had, but they invariably lead to the best stories. On this occasion, alcohol was both good and bad. We cracked open our first bottles of Corona as soon as the barman came on shift, with much the same enthusiasm as most couples pop the cork of the initial magnum of champagne at their wedding reception. I mean, shit, we’d just proven that we were invincible, untouchable, and we were thirsty for more. Well, thirsty for booze and attention. It never dawned on us that everyone else around us was a veteran in the skydiving field, and were inoculated against the ego boosting effects of adrenalin. So we sat, drank and talked ourselves up for a good few hours solid. We made friends with the other people at the bar, including a couple of American girls who worked at the DZ. They were cute, and we felt like we were better hung than the king of the donkey people, so we arranged a drinking game involving a pack of cards and a bottle of tequila. Pretty soon it escalated into a convoluted stripping game, and when that became too difficult to comprehend through the drunken haze, we moved to a more simple ‘lowest card loses’ scenario. This is a great game for lucky people. Simply put, the dealer gives everyone one card. Whoever has the lowest card must remove one item of clothing. Pure genius – and even better for me, Gilbert was the dealer. I’m not saying he was a crooked dealer, but having spent a couple of nights in a tent accidentally spooning him, I knew he wouldn’t want to see me naked any more than he absolutely had to. Plus there were two drunk, hot chicks playing with us. Surely we were headed for minge avenue, via boob street.

I have seen a film recently about card counting. It’s pretty difficult to master, but very simple to pick up. Unless you are Gilbert. He is wretched with numbers, and even when he was dealing from the bottom of the deck to fix the result, I still got the lowest card. Before I knew it, I was down to my underpants (not even my nice ones), and staring at the bloody two of spades. Bollocks. Literally, bollocks. I had to lose my pants, and in the spirit of the day, which had seen me defy gravity (sort of) and not back away from an intimidating situation, I whipped off my keks and ran. The running part must have come from not really wanting to sit at a bar completely naked, resting my glass on a lilywhite thigh, perched next to my droopy knob. I got some good speed up as I headed towards the dark of the hangar, before I realised that I needed to go back to the bar to make sure my clothes were not being hidden. As my mind turned over, my body forgot how to turn around, and I stacked it in very similar fashion to those useless robbers from the ‘Home Alone’ films. Pretty much arse over tit. I landed hard on my right knee, which immediately turned claret and jerked me into semi sobriety. I wandered over to the bar, clutching my bits in a ridiculously poor attempt at maintaining some respect. My pants were quickly repositioned to cover the offending appendage, and then my right leg was hauled up onto the bar and peroxide poured over the open wound. It was not the type of gash that I had originally thought would be on display that evening, but I was at least attended to by one of the girls, who sponged my cut in a sympathetic way that told me she was actually quite happy to have seen my perky pork parcel and pink passengers. Thank goodness it was another warm night.









Chapter 3 - Grey Hound, White Knuckles

We spent several more days at the DZ after my first jump. Gilbert completed his course and was presented with a certificate that could very well have read ‘You are now qualified to do crazy things in mid-air without any instructors looking over you. Please remember to pull your chute’. We saw a fair bit of the girls who worked at the drop zone, and experienced a little bit of suburban America with them. We went to a Chinese restaurant that served apple sauce with everything. They drove us to Walmart, where we bought some groceries, then looked at a massive selection of guns in a glass cabinet in the next aisle. On one evening, we went with them to their friends place to chill out in his Jacuzzi. Nothing particularly strange there, until we realised that their ‘friend’ was in his mid forties. Now I’m not saying that this was ridiculous or weird, but I’ll just put the notion forward that when I hit my midlife crisis, I am certainly going to try to get two near naked twenty-something girls to frolic and splash around in my back garden. Whether it works out for me or not is another thing. Still, this bloke was not a deviant as far as Gil and I could tell, and we relaxed in the moment and decided to stay over. I probably passed out around midnight after some margaritas that were a touch heavy on Tequila. When I awoke the next morning, I found myself tucked in on a makeshift bed that had somehow emerged from the couch on which I thought I was sprawled. I caught Gilbert’s eye and knew that he wanted to tell me something. After we said our good-byes and thank yous to the forty year old teenager, Gil revealed that he had watched him put me to bed. He had got me a pillow and a blanket, and made sure I was comfortable, all of which I thought was very nice. Then he had stood over me and watched me sleep for a good five minutes. Gil had stayed awake and kept a lonely vigil to ensure that the bloke didn’t stick his winky in my earhole, bless him. Fortunately, nothing untoward had occurred, but it was still just a bit too odd for us and we decided not to attend any more Jacuzzi sessions from thereon. I guess that bloke probably still has his CCTV footage of us if he really gets lonely *shudder*…

All too soon it seemed, we had to leave the drop zone. The theme of travelling is that just when you feel comfortable in a place, it’s time to move on. We had spent a quite fantastic first week there, and if our trip had ended right there and then, it would still have been a massive success. Gil had achieved the status of qualified skydiver, I had hurtled down to earth while my confidence soared up, up and away, and I had managed to get involved in a bit of ‘gentle petting’ with one of the cute American girls to boot. Mission accomplished, next challenge?

Oh dear me. The next challenge was deciding how to get to our next stop. The main issue in deciding this was that we didn’t have a next stop. There was talk of buying a crappy little car and driving across the US over a four week period, but this seemed a bit too much to ask and would likely lead to us either not meeting anyone, or meeting a selection of people who we really wouldn’t want to socialise with. Finally we settled upon getting the Greyhound bus to New Orleans. It seemed to be a reasonable idea while we sat in the quiet, middle class Florida bus station. When we stepped onto the bus itself, however, we realised our mistake. Let me guide you through the basics of transport in America as I now understand them – everyone who has a job (or a family) has a car. The only people who ride on the long distance bus are either just out of jail, or very likely to be going there soon. To make matters worse, there were no double seats available, so I chose what I thought was the ‘seat of least resistance’ (a term used in Physics to define the place in which you sit first if you want to avoid being stabbed, coined by Jago, 2003). This was a seat next to a placid looking Oriental man. Gilbert had sadly ended up next to 140 kilos of angry Latino, and spent most of the journey with a rather meaty looking shoulder pressed up against his face. Before I could enjoy my good fortune, the man next to me virtually exploded into a coughing and sneezing fit, without having the grace to cover his mouth with his hand. This was particularly unpleasant, but additionally scary as the outbreak of ‘SARS’ was fresh in the news, and I was clearly sat right next to the most likely carrier of the disease in the whole state. He might as well have stuck a used syringe in my leg. I was going to die because a bloody chicken farmer in Asia had not learned anything from the whole British mad cow disease episode. The irony of going from feeling free as a bird while skydiving to sick as a parrot on the bus did not escape me.

It took seventeen hours and three ‘changes’ of bus before we reached New Orleans. I have never since experienced such a combination of fear induced lack of sleep and mental exhaustion, even during a five day seminar on Project Management. We fell out of the bus and slid along the polished marble floor of the New Orleans depot, coming to a rest by the taxi rank.

“Please can you take us to a hostel”

“Which one?”

“What are the choices?”

“Well, there’s the one in the old quarter, and there’s another one that’s probably closed because of a shooting nearby”.

In my head I tried to process the information, but it was all a garbled mess of incoherent piffle. Gilbert at last managed to operate his speech function thankfully, and directed the guy to drive to the place that was open and not likely to result in our major organs being removed from our bodies at high velocity.

It was a good job too, as the people we met there proved to be our saviours.









Chapter 4 - The Third Duke of Rutland

Stepping into a hostel is a bit like going on a first date. You know exactly what you want out of it, but you just can’t be sure that you will get it. By moving from place to place, which is generally a good policy for travellers, you constantly put your expectations on hold. After all, you can’t be disappointed if you expect to be greeted by a stinking cesspit full of retarded lepers.

The New Orleans hostel wasn’t too bad in fairness. It was pretty clean and not too busy, which always helps if you don’t have a booking. We ambled up to the reception and asked if we could stay in a dorm for three nights. The guy at the desk gave us a frown and barked some stuff at us as if he were offended. I quickly retraced our words. I was quite sure that we had politely asked for a room, not suggested that he go fuck himself. So why the attitude? To this day I have no idea, but he did grudgingly check us in and take our cash money to boot. As we began to haul our backpacks on, a strange noise caught our attention. It was a voice – with a whiny drawl and a pointed tone. Clearly there were other English people in the hostel, how fabulous! Rather fittingly, the two Brits were complaining about the Yanks inability to understand the fine craft of tea making. There are subtle differences between Earl Grey and Lady Grey that only a refined Limey palate can appreciate. Neither Gilbert nor I were big drinkers of tea or coffee, but we instantly warmed to that fact that our compatriots were cussing the miserable American receptionist, and we duly introduced ourselves to them.

Meeting people is a very traveller thing to do. I know that everyone meets new people from time to time, but when you are travelling it seems that the normal social barriers that exist between two strangers are almost immediately broken. When living in London, I sometimes used to say hi to the person next to me on the Tube, just to see if I could get a reaction, or heaven forbid, a conversation, but stony silence was always the response. It’s because people feel safe when they are in their own settled environment. When you are out travelling on the other side of the world, without much security, living out of a bag, you metaphorically shit your pants a lot of the time. And you know that everyone else is doing exactly the same, because they are scared as well. So you talk, you generate similarity, and you calm yourselves down when you get the chance. This is exactly what we were doing. After our monumental coach ride to the edge of hell, a British accent, albeit a Northern one, was a safe point, a beacon of hope in our all American nightmare.

Charlie and Fay were from Sheffield (ish). They had just finished school and were on a year out before University. This put them at 18 years of age to my 22 and Gilberts 20 (He went to Uni a year early and was a July baby). Despite the gap, we had barely any more ‘life experience’ than them, and found that we shared a similar sense of humour that created a reasonable rapport immediately. Charlie had the appearance of a pipe cleaner with a mouth. He was a wiry kid who had a damaged knee from rugby. Let me tell you, most people of his physical disposition that played anything more violent than tiddlywinks usually ended up getting injured. A fop of hair adorned his head and he carried an air of self importance, even introducing himself to us as ‘The Third Duke of Rutland’. It took a while to work it out, but this was a completely fallacious title which was a running gag of several years. There was something about him that made you think it could be true. I’ve played poker with him a few times and he always projects that he has the strongest hand, and I have a feeling that when he did this in life, most people never called his bluff. He was also incredibly sharp, witty and sarcastic in an amazingly arrogant manner that often had us all in stitches. Often, his disdain for the general American public bordered on the apoplectic, so it amuses me somewhat that he currently lives there .

Fay was a different creature. Same broad northern drone and dry wit, but much more guarded and difficult to read. Quite short, with a honed athletic body and an arse like two boiled eggs in a hanky. I got the impression that she was used to getting her way. There’s plenty more back story on how she became who she is, but I for one do not know the whole account and don’t wish to guess at half truths. She had a boyfriend who was in the army and stationed in the Middle East I think. He would call her every day, even though it cost a ridiculous amount of money for her just to receive the calls on her UK mobile. It might be fair to assume that he was worried about what she might be getting up to. Not that she was that way inclined; as far as I could tell she was a straight up honest gal.

Together, Charlie and Fay made a strange team. They were clearly very good friends, and there were hints of romantic undertones from time to time, which both of them vehemently denied. They completely trusted each other, but they could also both be pigheaded, which made for some awkward moments. We were fortunate enough to get to know much more about them, but it all started with a street party.



**********



Our stay in New Orleans coincided with some sort of festival season. I was told that we had missed Mardi Gras by a week or so, but that there were still large scale street parties happening at the weekends. After sharing a quiet dinner with Charlie and Fay on our first night, we decided collectively that a night out on the town together would be a grand experience.

A New Orleans street party is not a simple case of standing in the road and chatting with your neighbours. Thousands of hedonists flock to the city centre, where alcoholic beverages are served out of small porches, and girls bare their breasts if you give them a feather boa or bead necklace (both of which were being sold in shops that must have made a fortune on these nights, but been very quiet for the other 49 weeks of the year). Everywhere you looked, people were leaning out of windows, making noise, dancing and generally having a splendid time.

At the start of the night, our quartet was joined by two girls who had just arrived at the hostel. We had talked to them as they were in our dorm, and suggested they join us at the street party. They seemed like upstanding members of the community, but were perhaps a little too straight laced for their own good. They were on a break from their university, where they were probably studying rocket science and actively participating in the debating society. There is nothing wrong with either of these pursuits, but I’m pretty sure that most fun loving Uni students only really debate things like which animal has the largest cock (whale / giraffe / rhino etc) and who can drink the most Absinthe before passing out. These girls were bright cookies, but dull playmates.

As we sat on the bus on the way to the party, we were all chatting and generally being very colloquial and relaxed. Our colourful use of the English language seemed to make the girls uneasy, even wincing at words like ‘felching’ and ‘dry-hump’, which were scattered into the conversation, mainly in an effort to shock them. Then, in a moment of pure banality, one of them suddenly announced the following…

“Oh no, I’ve left the fucking light on in the dorm”…

The use of the expletive was so out of character that the conversation stopped in an instant. Charlie cleared his throat and asked her to repeat what she had said, and in a tone that lacked any form of humour, she recited verbatim…

“Oh no, I’ve left the fucking light on”…

Crazy. Not only had she felt it was necessary to swear in our company to gain acceptance, she had also put all the emphasis on the word ‘fucking’, like she was truly aghast to have forgotten to turn the dorm light out. And she had repeated it word for word upon request. She was out of her depth. She was a massive turd in the toilet bowl of conversation – an unfortunate blockage.

The rest of the bus journey passed without exchanging any more words.

When we got to the first bar, we all sauntered in, single file. Charlie and Fay looked at Gilbert and I, and we all moved to the bar. Then we did a U turn and left via the emergency exit on the far side, while the girls remained in a throng of people that were possibly too inebriated to be bothered by their awkward social ineptitude. Yes, we judged them, and we judged them early. Who knows, they could have become howling banshees of fun with a couple of drinks inside them, but there was no point wasting twenty minutes and/or dollars in finding out. So we ditched them and threw ourselves into the throbbing mass of exciting people outside. We were quite lucky in that it only took the one flush to get rid of them.

Outside the pub was just as packed as the inside. The street was alive and we were definitely in the centre of the action. Our first task was to purchase beverages, which fell upon my shoulders as I was the only one actually over the legal drinking age. As a group we decided to get as much alcohol as possible, so I wound up buying four margaritas – that each came served to the brim of a 32 ounce container that more closely resembled a bucket than a cup. These were polished off within 20 minutes, so we tried the more economical approach of mixing a litre of cheap vodka with two litres of cola. This lasted a bit longer as it pretty much tasted like a very bad and ineffective mouthwash.

Within the hour we were dancing up and down the street, interacting with all manner of crazy drunk people in various states of undress. We danced with an American bloke who had a furry, white flat cap, which we tried to steal. I hid it down the back of my trousers and then did the casual arm shrug when he asked where it had gone. Instead of calmly accepting the loss of the garment, he accused me of putting it in my pants, which I absolutely denied, because who knows how many skids would show up on the pristine white surface. I didn’t realise that when he said ‘pants’ he really meant ‘trousers’, and after I’d finally worked it out, I handed it back to him and considered the matter over. The guy was not amused however, and accused me of trying to steal his cap, which was a fair comment as I had rather taken a shine to it. As he bore down on me, Charlie and Gilbert appeared, each hovering over one of my shoulders. Suddenly the guy backed down and disappeared into the night. I had never been one for fighting, especially since I had the build of a malnourished stick insect, so the situation, which had come and gone so quickly, was a new experience to me. I didn’t really like it, although the couple of seconds where my mates arrived to back me up did rather make my balls swell, in a primeval kind of way.

Talking of balls swelling, I was feeling a touch of pressure on my bladder, and realised that having consumed so much liquid, I was in urgent need of a bathroom break. I tried a couple of bars, but they all refused toilet access until I had bought a drink. Being reasonably poor and also exceptionally tight, I decided to take my chances on the road. I gathered Charlie and Gil in a little huddle around me, and then created a dual purpose for the margarita vessel. Let me tell you, 32 ounces is a lot of volume, but somehow I had more to give, and a swift manoeuvre had to be attempted in order to move the full receptacle out of harm’s way and position an empty one in the path of the stream, all with one hand. I think I pulled it off, so to speak, but I was so drunk that I could have been pissing down my own leg and not noticed it until my washing pile became slightly damp the next day.

Carnage was certainly on the cards, and Fay decided that she should acquire some beads and feather boas. The normal process for this was to approach a young male, flash your tits, and get a gift in return. Fay was not going to play by these rules, and sent us boys on a mission for her. After generously revealing my nipples to several groups of girls, I finally got hold of a bead necklace, and used it to trade with other people until I had the exact garment that Fay wanted. It was a bit like the bloke who traded a paperclip for a house on the internet (via a series of other trades of items that gradually became more valuable), except I got absolutely nothing from it. I didn’t even get to see Fay’s tits for a good few weeks.


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