I met Jeff while we were both working for the phone company. Jeff was a purveyor of information and he was bloody good at it. Together we built a successful team. And it transpired that Jeff and I were more or less on the same wavelength about non-work-related subjects and thus was born an enduring friendship. The pair of us went on to have several adventures, usually involving bikes and beer.
At this point I’ll introduce another couple of ‘characters’. Young Graham is Jeff’s future son-in-law; well, I hope he is, because Matt (young Graham’s best mate), has promised me £50 if I can persuade Young Graham to marry Jeff’s daughter before Matt himself ties the knot. Young Graham and Matt met at university; now in their late twenties, they have gone on to enjoy successful careers in trades associated with agriculture and have remained great mates, despite the fact that they take the piss out of each other incessantly. Anyway, out of the blue came an email from Jeff…
Hi Graham – I got a call asking if I and one other would like to do a rally across Europe. In a nutshell, we buy an old car for £200, paint it in some odd scheme (on the cheap) drive to wherever the rally starts then to the finish, then scrap the car and fly back. I guess there will be a few beers involved. What do you think? No obligation to accept, if it’s not your thing then no problems.
Hello Jeff – I’ve read through this 3 times:
– first thought… no chance!
– 2nd…mmmm sounds like fun!
– 3rd… yeah, why the hell not?
In conclusion, I’m up for it if you are.
Jeff later explained that he had been invited because the chances of making the trip in a car costing less than £200 would be significantly enhanced if you took along someone with mechanical skills and as Jeff is noted for his ‘spanner craft’, he fitted the job description. Young Graham had evidently suggested that Jeff may wish to bring along a companion of advanced years to provide him with some company. Henceforth I was referred to as ‘Old Graham’.
The preparations went smoothly and swiftly, with Young Graham taking care of the organisation; entry forms, hotels, flight home. Jeff took care of the transport; acquisition of the car and its metamorphosis into a themed chariot suitable for conveying two youngsters and a couple of old gits across Europe in style. Matt and I kept our heads down and left them to get on with it.
We had one planning meeting in London, but as the lads came down after work, by the time they arrived the senior citizens had crawled around several pubs and were slightly the worse for wear, to the extent that I forgot to keep an eye on the time and nearly missed the last train home. Also, I mentioned in passing that I hadn’t driven a manual car in years and had developed the habit of left-foot breaking. This could have disastrous consequences whilst negotiating downhill hairpins on mountain passes, a fact that was evident on the worried faces of my co-drivers. Not an auspicious start. The main point of the meeting was for me to get acquainted with the team and also to work out what our theme should be. How the youngsters came up with ‘The Young Ones’ beats me, but upshot was that the four of us took a look at ourselves and each other and based on our character traits organised the casting as follows:
Mike – the father (in-law) figure would be played by Jeff.
Rick and Vyvyan – wayward teenagers with a penchant for (on one hand) fatuous semi-Marxism and (on the other) hitting people, would be played by Matt and Young Graham respectively.
And Neil – the put-upon housewife in all but name would be played by me… obviously.
The route across Europe was tortuous to say the least. The trip would be interspersed with various challenges along the way. This was the itinerary…
Day 0 – Milton Keynes to Reims (340 miles) The plan was to leave Milton Keynes as early as possible and get to Dover for the tunnel. Then drive south to Reims in time to settle in, attend the pre-rally briefing and have a few beers.
Day 1 – Reims to Chur (400 miles) through the gentle rolling countryside of the Champagne and Alsace regions of France before heading into the Swiss Alpine mountains to the picturesque city of Chur.
Day 2 – Chur to Fussen (250 miles) along a series of mountain passes, via Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Austria and Germany, taking in the Stelvio Pass and having a go on the Pradaschier toboggan run on the way.
Day 3 – Fussen to Prague (300 miles) via the medieval city of Regensburg, before heading over the Czech border onto Prague, for the final party and awards ceremony.
We met at Jeff’s in Milton Keynes and then went for a few beers. The atmosphere was a bit tense; the endeavour was going to be challenging, and although Jeff and Young Graham were well acquainted, the four of us needed to gel, otherwise the trip was going to be a trial.
We decided that I should drive the first leg to Dover as I needed to relearn how to use a clutch and forget how to left-foot brake; a challenge that would be best addressed whilst driving on a familiar side of the road. We got as far as the first roundabout before the engine management light came on (it stayed on for the rest of the trip), which caused me to have a lack of concentration on the gear front, so with my left foot ‘pushed to the boards’, we coasted out into the traffic. Full credit to the Milton Keynes rush-hour drivers who swerved expertly around us. And, full credit to my co-drivers; we escaped unhurt and no one uttered a word, although a nasty smell did emanate from the vicinity of Matt.
The trip went according to plan. We completed all sections of the rally via prescribed routes, undertook various mental challenges along the way and arrived in Prague feeling fairly fresh and ready to party. It was a great trip; the team gelled… all good then? So far so boring… well, stay with me.
The Swiss Kiss
We collected the detailed itinerary for day 2 in the carpark of the Pradaschier toboggan run. By then we’d been down the toboggan run. The toboggans run on rails so if you keep your nerve there’s absolutely no need to use the brakes. I left my braking as late as possible but had to succumb in the end to avoid rear-ending Matt.
Day 2 involved taking various photos to prove where we’d been and needed to include a photo of two team members kissing whilst dressed as minions. We concluded that the forfeit outweighed the value of the points to be earned. Driving around the continent attired as ‘The Young Ones’ disguised as minions was bad enough, but kissing, or being kissed by either Jeff, Matt or Young Graham was totally out of the question and from how they sounded at the time, my teammates were similarly minded. However, when Matt landed the kiss on my cheek, I was moved by the tenderness and the cherub-like softness of his puckered lips… guess it’s worth trying everything life has on offer.
The picture shows us celebrating our success, which is where the story should’ve ended. However…
One of Jeff’s many preparatory tasks had been to work out how we were going to get rid of the car. Dumping it was out of the question on both ethical grounds (honestly!) and the fact that we were almost certain to get found out and fined. Matt had suggested parking it overnight with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, but this plan would fail on two counts. The car was a bloody eyesore; Jeff had done his best to make it look attractive and although I have a lot of admiration for his abilities, artistic flair isn’t one of them; no one was going to steal the car for keeps. No, the Shitroen was only likely to be stolen by a joyrider who would dump it somewhere in Prague and we’d still get found out and fined. We elected to do the right thing. Jeff contacted a scrap dealer located on the outskirts of Prague who agreed to take the vehicle off our hands and then drive us to the airport. It sounded too good to be true, and you know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true…
The final night of celebration in Prague was a joyous and noisy affair. The ‘Young Ones’ had concentrated on the tasks set by the rally organisers well enough to earn them second place and one hundred euros. We drank the prize money in less than an hour and emerged into the warm evening, slightly unsteady on our feet. We were immediately accosted by a dubious looking character clutching a mobile phone in one hand and a fist full of euros in the other; he was offering to buy the cars. Jeff explained that we had already made arrangements and that this involved a lift to the airport. As Jeff politely declined and the man turned to leave, I asked him for his phone number just in case.
During breakfast the next morning, Jeff received a call from his ‘scrappage’ contact. Evidently the venue needed to change; the car would be processed separately from their usual wrecks as it was registered in the UK. This sounded a bit odd, but plausible, so Young Graham programmed the new location into his phone and off we headed, out of town, to find the scrap dealer.
We envisaged a typical scrapyard on the edge of town, but in the event, we drove into the countryside and ended up at what looked like a derelict barn. During the previous evenings celebration I had drunk the least and so was once again behind the wheel. As I drove towards a pair of large derelict barn doors I became very uneasy; this just didn’t feel right. There didn’t appear to be any vehicles, scrap or otherwise, and no sign of life.
As I glanced up at the rear-view mirror I could see dust kicking up from a vehicle following us at speed down the track… uneasy quickly turned into shit-scared. “We’ve got company,” I intoned, trying to sound calm and failing miserably, “and it looks as though they’re in a hurry.”
We were getting close to the barn doors now, close enough to slow down, so I shoved my left foot on the first pedal that presented itself and crashed straight through the doors with my co-drivers screaming “BRAKES” in unison. My right foot eventually found the brake and the Shitroen stalled about ten yards inside the empty barn. The following vehicle, a black Merc with blacked out windows, executed a near perfect handbrake turn and came to a halt blocking any hope of a quick exit. Three Slavic looking blokes jumped out and one of them was carrying a rusty AK47… I noticed that smell again.
As they approached, Matt wound down his window and threw out a general question, “hey mate, how are you going to get all four of us plus luggage into that?” Matt had a good, but given the current set of circumstances, entirely superfluous point.
The bloke with the gun waved it at us, clearly indicating that we were to get out of the car. We complied and I asked “what the hell is going on here? We were supposed to meet a scrap dealer; who are you and what do you want?”
The bloke with the gun was slightly built, in his mid-thirties, fairly fit looking, but only properly scary due to the AK. His companions however looked bloody evil, over six foot with the physiques of body builders. All three of them were adorned with various tattoos that looked as though they meant something.
The bloke with the gun was probably the brains of the outfit. From an inside pocket he dragged a pristine looking book. I could make out Cyrillic script on the cover and the words ‘INGLISCH/FRANCHE’ in bold capitals; a phrasebook, and from the look of it, not a very good one.
Mr Gun cleared his throat and spoke clearly “ve av her grand batteau commink” he paused and flicked a couple of pages “yous await or me shoot yous”.
I said “oh fuck!”
Mr Gun said “does whas weez says or weeez fucks yous.”
I smelt that smell again.
Jeff’s phone rang. Mr Gun walked quickly over, drove the muzzle of the gun into Jeff’s midriff and as my mate slumped forward, he brought the gun smartly up under his chin. Jeff fell backwards, clearly hurting and clearly shocked. Mr Gun held out his hand for the phone. Jeff handed it to him.
Mr Gun answered the phone but said nothing. Mr Gun nodded a couple of times and It became clear that someone was giving him instructions. Mr Gun walked up to each of us in turn, looked us over and then spoke. Although we didn’t have a clue what was being said, it seemed clear enough that Mr Gun was describing us to whoever was on the other end of the call. After he had completed his explanations, Mr Gun handed the phone back to Jeff, indicating that Jeff should listen.
Give him his due, Jeff tried to reason with the caller, but after a while he just fell silent and listened. Then he handed his phone back to Mr Gun who terminated the call and trousered the phone.
Muscles One produced some cable ties which he used to bind our wrists. The three of them walked away out of earshot and went into a conference.
We needed a plan and we needed it quick. It was obvious that these gangsters didn’t understand any English, but we kept our voices down as Jeff filled us in on some details.
“We’re seriously in the shit. It was the same bloke on the phone who phoned me earlier with the change of venue.” Jeff turned to me “they’re not interested in us… too old. If we go along with them, they’ll tie us up and leave us here for someone to find. It’s the lads they’re interested in. Evidently Young Graham has the boyish good looks favoured by a particular type of ‘client’, which is the main reason for the kidnapping. Matt here isn’t suitable for the KY jelly assignment, but he’s strong enough to work in a diamond mine… this is a nightmare.”
Young Graham started whimpering.
My mouth moved up and down, but nothing came out. And then I smelt the smell again “Matt mate, how are you doing that?”
You meet some interesting characters over sixty odd years and a yarn told to me by a double-glazing salesman sprang to mind. Evidently while this particular double-glazing salesman was fulfilling a peace-keeping role in Kosovo (in the British army, not selling double glazing… keep up!), he was confronted in a basement by an AK47 wielding local. The local fired one-handed from point blank range and missed. He shot several more rounds, all of which missed, although by this time he was trying to hit a moving target. The double-glazing salesmen reasoned that one handed, the AK was useless.
An idea occurred to me.
In his youth, Jeff did karate. He told me that he was good at it; reactions of a whippet and technique to match. Jeff had also mentioned a method he once practiced to prepare him in the event of a serious street fight. This involved a sheet of plywood, super-glue and large grapes. The exercise required great accuracy, both in terms of hitting pairs of grapes with index and middle finger and also applying the correct amount of force to split the grapes but avoid breaking fingers against plywood. Jeff’s right-hand index and middle finger have distinct kinks; he didn’t always get it right.
I outlined the plan. We needed to disable Mr Gun and Jeff and I would take him on.
We also needed to slow down Muscles One and Two. I’d only known Matt and Young Graham for a short time. Young Graham had a sharp mind; he was physically fit, but to be honest, when he agreed to take on the slightly smaller of the big blokes, I was seriously impressed by how readily he agreed to act as a human sacrifice.
Matt was a different ‘kettle-of-fish’. He was clearly capable of waging solo chemical warfare, but for this exercise we’d need speed and brute force. I suggested that he may wish to take on the big fella. From the tenderness of his kiss in Switzerland, I knew that Matt had a sensitive side, but with a lopsided wry smile, he looked down at his tethered wrists and twisted, the bindings dug into his wrists, which started to bleed. His smile turned into a grin. The binding snapped. Matt said “just tell me when.”
Matt must have been in the boy-scouts, because he carefully unbuttoned his shirt and ripped out a small knife that he’d gaffer taped to his chest. He glanced over to the group of gangsters who were by now in heated debate about something and paying us no attention whatsoever. Matt cut our bindings.
I muttered quietly, setting out the plan.
Jeff and I had considered taking the ‘tied-up-and-left’ option and leaving the lads to a life of KY jelly and servitude, but we agreed that the story about leaving us to be found was bullshit. They were going to kill us. This high-risk plan was all we had.
We sat quietly and tried to calm ourselves. Eventually the gangster conference came to an end. They came over. We got to our feet; not an easy task pretending that your hands are still tied.
Mr Gun reached inside his jacket and pulled out his little book. Timing was going to be crucial. I watched as he crooked the gun under his right armpit and moved his finger away from the trigger. I got eye contact with him and then looked slightly to his right; ok, this sounds a bit hackneyed, but this opponent wasn’t the brightest star in the firmament, so it worked, he turned his head towards where I was looking – the barn doors. I set off at a lick towards him, shouting “now” as I went. It was like a sprint race, with me just jumping the gun (literally!). I ignored everything going on around me and concentrated on the muzzle of the AK which was swinging up to meet me.
Mr Gun took a step back and fired one handed. The recoil threw his aim back down and to my left, just missing my left foot.
I grabbed the muzzle just before the next round exited, wrenching the AK from Mr Guns grip. My momentum carried me forward and to his right. I completed a forward roll and came up still clutching the gun just in time to see Jeff deliver his signature blow. Jeff instinctively emitted a Kungfu shriek, which was swiftly followed by a sickening squelch and then a blood curdling scream as Mr Gun reacted to being blinded.
Mr Gun was disabled. Matt was kneeling on Muscles One, pounding his fists into a face which was fast turning into a bloodied mess. Young Graham was standing guard over his target, who was on his back nursing his bollocks.
The four of us looked at each other with ‘what next’ expressions. Young Graham took charge.
Young Graham snatched the AK from me and ran over to Muscles Two who was still clutching his balls; Graham rammed the butt of the gun into the stricken Gangsters neck, who reacted by releasing his balls and using his hands to protect his head, thus affording an open goal, which Young Graham promptly took, smashing the butt of the gun into Muscles Two’s groin. Then Young Graham ran over to the Merc, shot out three of its tyres, grabbed the ignition key and then ran for the Shitroen. “Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here.” Good plan. Matt and I ran for the back doors. Jeff retrieved his phone from Mr Gun and then jumped into the front passenger seat, wiping vitreous fluid from his fingers onto his trousers as he went.
The Merc was blocking the exit so Young Graham drove through the wall and away up the track. As he was driving, Young Graham suggested that the sensible option was to say nothing and get on a plane as soon as possible. I phoned the bloke who’d approached us the evening before and told him that if he was still interested the car would be parked in the airport car park with the keys on the nearside front tyre. We took a chance on the documentation.
So that was that. As we stood in the departure queue, it occurred to me that we must have looked a sorry sight. Jeff had taped his rebroken fingers together and Matt was nursing broken knuckles. The Graham’s were in pretty good shape, just a bit dishevelled.
Young Graham broke the silence “anyone fancy doing Monte Carlo next year?”
I smelt that smell again.