My last blog bitched about two passengers who blighted our recent flight to Tenerife. I hate to be predictable, but it wasn’t the first time. Oh dear me no. Not by a long chalk. Let us see what happened on a flight to Mexico some fifteen years ago…
Flying is a curiously numbing experience for something that is, in principle, so extravagantly dangerous:
“Ladies and gentlemen we are going to take you up to a height of 35,000 feet, from where, believe me, we will make a very large hole in the ground should we lose forward momentum for any reason. These reasons may include any, or all, of the following: bird impact, pilot error, terrorist attack, catastrophic engine failure, inversions in thermal layers, and – for you fans of “The Twilight Zone” – that gremlin sitting on the starboard wing.
“In the event of an impending air-ground interface, could I please remind you that smoking is not permitted until the Captain has illuminated the “It Doesn’t Matter You’re Dead Now” signs, and the aircraft is safely buried forty feet underground.
“Thank you for choosing to fly with us today, and, if there is anything we can do to rid you of the fear that, at this height, cosmic radiation is radically rearranging your DNA, please don’t hesitate to consult a member our very inexperienced cabin crew.”
People react in differing ways to package-style flying: some hunker down with a book and blank everything out; business types extract unfeasibly expensive laptops and pretend to understand the pie charts; I play electronic chess on a machine with an annoying bleep and a pawn that went missing somewhere over the Bahamas; my wife falls instantly asleep the moment she fastens her seatbelt and thereafter stirs only in the event of the drinks trolley, Duty Free services, and some of the more major emergencies.
Life as a passenger should be sweet, but – as we saw in the last blog – it’s not uncommon for fellow travellers to be unduly problematic. Were you to look for a couple to epitomise the problem, then I would have to point you in the general direction of Mr and Mrs Hermesetas, on our flight to Mexico in the Spring of 1997.
We saw them first in the Departure Lounge at Gatwick. You could hardly miss them: they appeared to have dressed by a process of random selection.
She was a prematurely greying forty-something, wearing a floppy white sun hat, a bright azure football shirt, grey-and-rose-hued flowery slacks – just that bit too tight for her ample hips – and a purplish wrap, worn poncho-style. Setting off the whole ensemble was a pair of blindingly white trainers large enough that they might easily once have served duty as floats on a sea-plane
Her husband – a florid-faced, Grecian-2000-haired, troll of a man – was also wearing a football shirt, one of those garish day-glo jobbies, in such a particularly vile shade of lime green that it could induce migraines, so dizzying was the interference effect that assaulted your eyes as it rippled about his considerable bulk. I imagine the crowd that cheers these colours is forced to wear protective goggles by the Health and Safety Executive. Emblazoned across the back of this fashion atrocity was the name of the footballer, a Mexican centre-forward whose name I can’t clearly recall – something like “Hernississos”. On the spot we christened him Mister Hermesetas. Since colour clashing was the order of the day, he had chosen to inhabit a rather fetching pair of red chinos, plus white trainers even larger than those his wife was clumping around in, with the additional bonus of little red lights that blinked on and off as he walked. He was hatless, but I have no doubt something wide-brimmed with dangly corks was in his luggage.
The couple we were holidaying with saw them first and instantly fell about, clutching their sides and stage-whispering “Don’t look now, but…”
So of course we had to look, and, at that moment, we knew two incontrovertible facts: one, that these two were going to be trouble; two, that they would be sitting next to us on the plane.
I hate to be right all the time.
The next thing that struck me about Mister Hermesetas, once I had adjusted to the dress sense, was that he seemed able to talk without pausing for breath for what seemed like an eternity. How he accomplished this without keeling over from lack of oxygen I don’t know. Perhaps he sucked up air through his arse: if so, the Gods had also seen fit to give him the ability to talk out of it most of the time by way of compensation. His was not so much a conversational style, more a stream-of-consciousness rant, encompassing as many tributaries and backwaters of drivel as he could. Within two minutes of sitting in the seats directly in front of us (of course), he had turned, eyes a-boggle, and informed me – my wife was feigning sleep – that the Mexicans loved him, he was going back there for the second time after last year and had arranged this directly with the hotel, but not the same hotel as last year, because strangely they were fully booked this year, which was odd because they hadn’t been full this same time last year, and he was going to have a word with the Hotel Manager who was a personal friend and he was taking a suitcase full of biros because the Mexicans were a poor people and their children needed writing materials and you can’t get biros in Mexico, so he was going to go down to the local school and talk to the children and give them biros, because the Mexican children loved him last year only he didn’t have biros then, so now that he had biros he was going back, which would make the poor Mexican children very happy and, so, he would be happy too, and there was so much more he could have brought if only he had the room in his suitcases, but erasers were probably out of the question, so biros would have to do, and, anyway, the Mexicans might be poor but they are a proud people and they wouldn’t like to be treated like charity cases, and they loved his wife too but it was very strange that the hotel they stayed in last year was so full, because he knew they were looking forward to seeing him again, particularly as he was on a mercy mission for the poor children…
By this point in the proceedings my mind had gone into standby mode. I couldn’t be arsed to inform him that he had probably badly underestimated the availability of biros in Mexico, because, to be brutally honest, I didn’t want to get into conversation with him at all. Like so many Englishmen, I have an immense talent for looking politely interested whilst actually not listening at all. Of all the talents of various nationalities around the world, it is this that probably gets least press, because we are so darned good at it: “You English are so polite…”, yeah, right; you think I’m listening, but I’m just nodding and making little grunts of affirmation, hehehe, I wonder what I’ll have for dinner later…
Mister Hermesetas was still gabbling away, something about Portugal now, so I’d obviously missed an important link, but I tuned out again anyway, because I was pretty sure it would come round again at some point in the fourteen hour flight to Puerto Vallarta.
Fourteen hours. Shit.
Our friends, in the seats behind us, were doubled up at my misfortune. I could hear them digging each other in the ribs, saying “biro” in daft voices, and speculating whether the Hermesetas would be in our hotel, perhaps in the room next to ours. This prospect was so appalling that for a while I stopped being a passive receiver of information and actually instigated a direction for the conversation: namely, what hotel would the Hermesetas be gracing with their biro largesse?
The question seemed to throw Mr H. I’m not sure he’d ever had anyone take part in an actual dialogue before that moment, so his brain was probably dealing with a whole new sensation. Like a slow motion set piece in a John Woo movie, the world seemed to hold its breath as I awaited his answer. It was the longest five seconds of my life. Mercifully, he told me he was staying at the other end of town, and I murmured a tiny prayer of gratitude to the Big Fella upstairs, just in the extremely unlikely event that He actually exists. You can’t be too careful with your own afterlife, particularly with the possibility of having to share it with people like the Hermesetas.
As our plane negotiated its tortuous path to the runway I had to put up with the nonsense, but after take-off Mr Hermesetas turned his back on me and got down to more important business. From the stowage locker he produced a large cool-box, which he had somehow managed to smuggle on board without any awkward questions. From this he extracted, with the elaborate flourish of a conjuror with a top hat, can after can of beer and cider, all of different makes. There was a can of Diamond White, another of Scrumpy Jack, a Stella Artois, a Labatts Ice, a Worthington Best Bitter, a John Smiths Yorkshire Bitter, a Guinness, a Mackesons, a XXXX, a Carling Premier, and so on, seemingly endlessly. I wasn’t sure if I should applaud when, at last, the cool-box was empty. Clearly Mr H valued variety; equally clearly he was preparing for a plane party of some magnitude. What I find strange to this day is that, as a frequent flyer, he must have known he would never be allowed to drink these whilst on board, yet he lined them up on his food tray like some sort of homage to alcohol. It was the very epitome of conspicuous consumption, with his very own private bar, and, thus provisioned, he hunkered down for some serious guzzling.
The very first “pssschiiiiiiiit” as he opened the Labatts drew the ferret-like attention of a passing air stewardess. She paused for a long moment, obviously unable to believe what her eyes were telling her, then she came out fighting: “I’m sorry sir. You may only consume alcohol that you have purchased on board the plane. I’m afraid I am going to have to ask you to put those cans away.”
Mister Hermesetas received these tidings with the blank expression of a schoolboy grappling with a particularly difficult bit of algebra. You could see the cogs whirring away inside, but obviously it did not compute. He took a slow and deliberate swig of lager, just to aid contemplation, his shark eyes suddenly glazed with the effort of all that thinking.
“Sir, I’ve told you that you can’t drink that here. Please put it down.”
A vein in his forehead bulged alarmingly as he slowly repeated “Can’t…drink…”. It was as though the words had somehow been translated into Mandarin Chinese in his scrambled egg mind. “Can’t…not allowed…no drink?”
Behind the stewardess’s bright toothsome smile you could see the words “We’ve got a right one here” forming an orderly queue in her front brain: “That’s right sir. You’ll have to put the beer away.” To help reinforce the basic concept she gently removed the can of Labatts from his palsied grasp. I don’t think I have ever seen a man look so bereft as Mister H did at that moment. I’m sure he’d have willingly lost a kidney rather than part with that drink, but the stewardess was relentless and had begun packing the rest of the cans back in the cool-box. For a horrible moment I thought she might even make him sick up what he’d already consumed.
When the box was stowed safely back in the locker, the stewardess decided to mend fences by enquiring whether she could now fetch Mr H a drink from the bar. He perked up immediately. “Do you sell champagne?” he asked.
“Yes sir. We have Lanson in quarter bottles at six pounds fifty a bottle.”
“I’ll have six bottles.”
There was a momentary pause, as she assimilated the order.
“Sorry, sir. Six?”
“Or twelve. Make it twelve.”
You could see that the poor girl’s customer services training had never envisioned this scenario. Give her a gang of armed terrorists led by Alan Rickman and she’d be fine, but Mister Hermesetas was a whole new world of trouble. Her mouth opened and closed wordlessly a few times before she gave up and went off in search of twelve quarter bottles of champagne. After much rummaging and a few pleas to her colleagues she eventually returned to inform Mr H that she could only find ten, would that do?
Would that do? He was as happy as a lime-green-football-shirted idiot in pig shit, and shortly after his affirmation he set about quaffing the first of the bottles by way of proof. It barely touched the sides: the effervescent fruits of Epernay – tended lovingly in dark caves for years, turned a quarter turn every day by a man whose only job was to turn champagne bottles a quarter turn while the miracle of fermentation worked its ancient magic – flowed into his capacious gut and were gone forever. Mr H. smacked his lips appreciatively, belched loudly for good measure, and set about demolishing bottle number two with the same unswerving dedication. At no time, as he made his way through all ten bottles in about fifteen minutes, did he so much as enquire of his wife whether she might like some. Mrs H was not a conversationalist and seemed content enough with her enormous Thermos flask of coffee, which we later realised was spiked with copious amounts of brandy. She passed out somewhere in mid-Atlantic and did not bother the scorers for the remainder of the flight.
Having sorted out Mister Hermesetas the stewardess was obviously keen to return to dealing with normal people for a change, so she smiled brightly at me, and I smiled a sympathetic smile back, two human minds meeting and sharing a moment of embarrassed empathy for her recent plight.
“Can I get you drinks from the bar, sir?”
“Yes. Twelve bottles of champagne please.”
Her face was a picture until she realised I was only kidding.
I had to bear the brunt of Mister Hermesetas’ special brand of companionship for most of those long, long hours that it took to reach Mexico. I was hoping against hope that he might eventually follow the selfless example of his wife and lapse into an alcoholic coma, but his capacity for the stuff seemed boundless. I can’t honestly say that he seemed drunk at any stage, but since drinking turns most of us into witless morons I guess he was just lucky to have a head start.
In rude desperation I tried playing chess on the annoying bleepy chess set with the missing pawn. Mister H eyed this thoughtfully for a moment, then said: “I’ll let you play in peace. I now how annoying it is when someone interrupts you while you’re playing chess.”
He turned away for perhaps a nanosecond before getting back in my face with a stream of waffle about playing chess against Gary Kasparov in a hotel in Brighton. I gave up the unequal struggle and went back to just nodding politely, as daydreams about chainsaw massacres – pleasant reveries, in which his decapitated, be-Grecian-2000ed head was booted around a football pitch by a bunch of dayglo-green clad footballers – vied with the equally appealing scenario of drowning him in a swimming pool full of various brands of lager. On second thoughts, he’d have probably enjoyed that last one.
Somehow I managed to make it to Puerto Vallarta without giving in to the small voice in my head telling me that the world would erect a statue in my honour in every park if I just throttled him where he sat.
We were lucky enough, for the most part, not to meet the Hermesetas whilst out and about in Mexico. He was obviously around, because all the poor Mexican children were running around poking each other’s eyes out with brand new biros, but we had to make do with just reminiscing about him. My Mister Hermesetas impression was really quite good, and it was towards the end of the holiday, in a local Supermercado, that I was favouring my wife with yet another rendition of the biro speech when suddenly the man himself leapt out from behind a shelf of Mexican condiments shouting “Angelica!”
My wife gave a little scream and jumped backwards, but we could see that he had a packet of green angelica in his hand, so he wasn’t about to attack, merely being helpful in naming local produce for us.
On the plane home he was seated two rows ahead of us, and had brought sandwiches in his cool-box to share with all his pals on the plane (the beer having been consumed within the first half hour in Mexico I would imagine). He dipped into the box and dragged out ominous chunks of bread filled with unknown delights – egg, certainly, judging by the smell, and angelica, possibly, judging by the fact he was an idiot – which he thrust into the deeply ungrateful hands of all those around him. Quite why he took it upon himself to do this when the plane had a perfectly good trolley of tasteless airline fodder of its own is anyone’s guess, but having distributed biros to the needy youth of Mexico he had probably caught that manic missionary zeal that makes one so distrustful of polite young Americans from Salt Lake City.
By the time we stopped over at Sanford Airport he had heartily pissed off everyone around him, and was now definitely showing signs of being worse for wear, spluttering little eggy gobbets of saliva over his near neighbours as he wobbled on about whatever was on his mind. He wanted to get off the plane, a sentiment we all heartily endorsed. We would have loved him to get off the plane too, preferably at 35,000 feet without the aid of a parachute. The stewardess was implacable, however, and would not let him off. We had a whip round to see if we could bribe her, but to no avail.
My last memory of the Hermesetas was of passing their vacated seats as we disembarked, to see that he had chomped his way through about three sackfuls of pistachio nuts. Along with the detritus from several thousand sandwiches, and – yes! – a couple of empty cans of cider and beer, the empty shells were heaped about a foot high on the floor where he had been. It was a fitting memorial to a complete nutter, I thought.
You can’t buy symbolism like that.