Turning my travel blog into a novel is a cathartic journey in itself and I’m enjoying it enormously. This extract, from the back end of 2017, always makes me chuckle and nearly always makes me think…
“If they’d shaved off me eyebrows I could’ve handled that.” These are the words of soon-to-be-married Philip, who is chained naked to a lamppost.
I’ve driven through Teesside and am just short of Newcastle and it’s the night before I get attacked, though of course I am not to know that yet. Some while ago a friend of my wife and fellow-traveller said she does most of her driving at night while the roads are quiet. I’ve taken a leaf out of her book because the Ottermobile is spluttering a bit more than usual and I daren’t risk breaking down on a busy road again.
So that’s how I happen on a quiet road near Newcastle, only occasionally lit by Tango-coloured street lamps. And it’s how I’ve come to see up ahead, a ghost-like blob that turns out to be the pasty colour of naked human flesh, because I see it’s a man and he is tethered, his knob peeping sheepishly from a tangle of pubic hair.
Now of course my initial reaction is to laugh – I’m only human after all. This is obviously a prank of some sort, the wicked embers of a stag night maybe? But then I’m sure I detect a look of terror rather than embarrassment in the whites of the young man’s eyes and I begin to wonder if this could be more sinister. So I make a split-second decision and pull over.
“Are you OK mate?” I ask.
“Do I look fuckin’ OK?” he answers, not unreasonably.
“Stag night?” I ask.
“Yep,” he spits, “Bastards.”
“I can see yer find it funny,” he says, “Our lass’ll go ape when she hears about this! Why I don’t think she’ll marry us.”
“She will,” I reassure.
“I thought they’d be back after a few minutes like. I’ve been here about three fuckin’ hours. I’ll be here when it’s daylight, the papers’ll get hold of it.”
“No offence,” I say, “but I doubt it’s big enough for the papers.”
“What are you saying?” he says, indignantly.
“I’m just saying the papers are the last thing to worry about,” I insist, “You must be freezing cold.”
“Are you taking the piss?” he says, looking down at his member, that seems to be seeking shelter from the cold.
“Just that it’s a bit nippy tonight,” I say, “I’ll get you my coat.”
“Bastards,” I hear him mutter, as I return to the van to find my coat and a pair of pliers.
I come back to him with my skiing coat and drape it over his shoulders, telling him I’m tooled up and I’ll do my best to free him from the spot-lit ignominy.
“Go easy with them pliers!” he says, rather ungratefully I think. So I tell him I won’t be going anywhere near his crown jewels and anyway they’ve chained him with his hands behind his back so if anything I’ll be working rather more closely to his arse than to my liking. I also add that if he breaks wind while I’m down there I’m aborting the job and he’s staying firmly put.
This is not an easy task; they’d used the kind of chain you see on bike locks and there are two padlocks to negotiate. All I can do is try to prise them open, but to say I am struggling is an understatement.
“I’m supposed to be gettin’ married in a week,” he keeps saying, “If she’ll still have us.”
As I continue to wrestle with the chains, with nippy hands, I can’t help reflecting that this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and in a way I can’t believe my luck – it’s like the story Gods have sent me this to repay me a rich anecdote for all the hardship and stress my journey has entailed. I would dine out on this for months, I would have my friends and family in stitches when I went home.
“You’re still laughin’ at me down there aren’t ya?” he says.
“You have to admit it is funny in a way,” I say, unwisely.
“Not for fuckin’ me it isn’t!” he snaps, and adds the word bastards for emphasis.
They’d been drinking down the Toon, he says, after watching Newcastle get beat. Then after a bellyful his mates and brother told him they were getting a taxi to a club. The driver, another bastard in on the joke, drove them here, where they stripped him bare and whipped out the chains.
By way of empathy I tell him something similar once happened to me. Not on my stag night, but when I was leaving Crewe Railway Works way back in 1984. It had been a long tradition to grease someone’s balls if they were a beginner, or foolhardy enough to get married or brave enough to leave. “The piss-pot” as it was known, was chained to the hook of a crane and the victim had to release it while being pelted with grease. On my leaving do they went a stage further, stripping me, tying my hands, greasing my balls and hoisting me up on the crane upside down.
“Never?” he says, incredulous.
“Oh they did,” I say, “I still have a Polaroid somewhere.”
“Bastards,” he says, chuckling.
“I see you find it funny now,” I say.
“Why aye. I suppose it is when it’s somebody else,” he says, “You’ve cheered me up. But I’ll tell you one thing. For an engineer you’re fuckin’ useless with the pliers.”
“My hands are cold,” I explain, defensively.
“I know that, I can feel ‘em.”
To be honest it’s true that I am getting nowhere – this needs proper heavy-duty cutters and a lump hammer. But just as I’m about to throw in the towel and confess my failure, we see headlights in the distance.
“I hope it’s them bastards,” Philip says, “Knowin’ my luck it’ll be the fuckin’ police.”
But luckily he was right the first time and as the taxi pulls up, out jump his laughing mates and brother.
“Alright mate?” one of them says to me.
“I was just trying to get him free,” I say, hoping they wouldn’t attack me for being an interfering party-pooper.
“It’s alright, we’ve got keys.”
“Good,” says Phil, “Ya bastards.”
Within seconds he is free and ditheringly getting into his clothes while muttering obscenities. “Lucky this bloke stopped or I’da froze to fuckin’ death!” he says.
“Thanks, mate,” says the brother to me, “We were always coming back ya knar?”
“Why aye,” says the taxi driver and bastard who’s in on the joke, “We’d never have left him till morning.”
“You’re still bastards,” Phil says in peroration.
Soon after, they are on their merry way, leaving me with thanks and my pliers and my skiing coat. Then a few miles down the road I find a track where I can stealth-camp.
To be frank I don’t sleep too well tonight, too busy recapping one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever witnessed. But amid the laughter I think other things too. I think of the rich tapestry of life and the invaluable currency of friendship; the banter, the laughs, the pranks, the piss-taking and ultimately the unspoken love. I think that I have turned my back on this, on my family and friends, in selfish pursuit of a career. And I wonder where did it get me? Yes I’ve had my moments, yes I’ve seen most of the world. But they are just that, moments – moments in the sun that came with a sacrifice. And when I think like this I see if I’m honest with myself that I am lonely, that I am naked too. So was this sent to me as some kind of epiphany, that I am crying out for warmth from the bosom of my friends and family? Perhaps, I conclude, I have been on my own for too long.