As you probably know, Michael Palin lives not six doors up the street from me. Of course, given the size of the houses and their gardens, that’s nearly three quarters of a mile away, but it still makes him, in my mind at least, ‘one of the neighbours’. We also have quite a history together. When we first moved in, Michael was one of the first neighbours to come and greet us. We struck up an unlikely friendship, only compromised by his occasional habit of disappearing for six months and then coming back smelling faintly of camel.
‘Hello Maddo,’ he said this morning, his head popping around the corner of the living room door.
‘Mike!’ I cried. ‘Who let you in?’
‘Judy, of course,’ he said, coming into the room and dropping onto the sofa.
‘This is such a coincidence. I was only talking about you yesterday. I’ve not see you in ages. Where have you been?’
‘Oh, you know, here and there. I’ve just finished filming a show for the BBC. I spent six months driving around America in a taxi cab.’
‘How odd,’ I laughed. ‘You know that Stephen Fry is doing exactly the same thing right now?’
‘And would he be going anti-clockwise around America or clockwise?’
He clicked his teeth. ‘Figures,’ he said. ‘I did it anti-clockwise which is a different thing altogether. Much more difficult journey when you do it anti-clockwise.’
‘How so? I would have thought that they both were equal.’
‘Well there you go, Dick. It proves yet again that you often don’t know what you’re talking about. Did you know that America is totally uphill if you travel around it in a roughly anti-clockwise direction? If Stephen is doing it clockwise, he’ll save on petrol and will find it a much easier proposition altogether.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘No, I’m afraid that if he expects to make good television with this ill conceived premise of a clockwise journey around America, he’ll be in for many disappointments along the way.’
You see? The man had only been in the room for a minute yet he had taught me something about the geography of America that I’d never learned from any other source. Can you now see why we get on so well?
‘So what brings you to see me on such a fine November morning, Mike?’ I asked.
‘I’m here to ask you a favour. You know that the house across the way has been bought by David Dickinson?’
I didn’t. ‘Not that dandy from those antiques shows?’
Michael nodded slowly. ‘The very same. Odd chap. Highly tanned and with a yen for purple suits. Not endearing himself to the locals.’
‘How’s that? He’s not made disparaging remarks about your legs has he, Mike?’
‘Worse than that. He’s erected a large wooden billboard in his front garden.’
‘Advertising his new show. First thing I see when I wake up in the morning is his grinning face looking at me through the window. It’s even worse at night. It glows.’
‘Glows a mysterious orange. I can see it through the curtains. That’s why I want your help.’
‘Anything I can do,’ I promised, though my not being one of David Dickinson’s biggest fans had nothing to do with it. I’m a friend of Palin and I’m not one to stand back when the man needs my help. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Get dressed and come with me,’ he said.
Ten minutes later, we’d were walking up the driveway to Palin’s house. His home is something else: small, comfortable, eccentric. In my opinion, his shed is the most wonderful place on the Earth. It’s full of the old props from all the TV and films he’s done. Every corner is full of bric-a-brak sure to evoke happy memories of fish slapping, SPAM, and all the rest. Only this morning, he didn’t give me chance to go inside and examine his relics. He stopped me at the door.
‘This is it,’ he said, gesturing to a wheelbarrow sitting before the shed.
‘It’s a wheelbarrow,’ I said.
‘A fully-loaded wheelbarrow,’ said Michael and tapped the side of his nose.
‘Okay, it’s a fully loaded wheelbarrow. Why do you need my help?’
‘You’ve not examine it carefully enough,’ smiled Michael.
I bent down and made a careful inventory of the wheelbarrow loaded, as it was, with assorted house bricks, an old canister half-filled with petrol, four long plastic tubes and other assorted debris.
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I can see I was wrong when I said it was just a wheelbarrow. It’s a wheelbarrow full of assorted house bricks, an old canister half-filled with petrol, four long plastic tubes and other assorted debris.’
‘Not just any old tubes,’ hinted Michael.
I bent down again and, sure enough, I saw that they weren’t any old tubes. They were tubes filled with a strange smelling paste. I shook my head, not knowing what to make of them.
Michael sighed. ‘You remember when we tried to build our own rocket? You remember that I was researching fuel compounds? Well, that’s what I have here. Plastic tubes filled with solid fuel.’
I was glad it was a penny that dropped and not a spark striking. ‘You’ve built a rocket powered wheelbarrow!’
‘I like to think of it as a flaming wheelbarrow full of rubbish,’ he said. ‘But rocket powered does have a ring to it. That’s why I want your help. I want you to aim the wheelbarrow while I set off the rockets.’
‘Aim it at what?’ I asked.
He nodded down the drive to the house across the road where a twenty five foot wooden David Dickinson was grinning like an orange tree high on dope.
‘Aim it at that bloody thing,’ he said.
‘How illegal is this, Michael?’
‘Not illegal at all,’ he assured me. ‘Has the government ever outlawed rocket powered wheelbarrows filled with flaming rubbish? Have they ever said that large wooden Dickinsons are protected monuments? I don’t think so.’
When he put it like that, I didn’t see how I couldn’t help him.
I grabbed the handles firmly as Michael lit the rockets. At first they only smoked but after a few moments, they caught and I could feel the wheelbarrow straining to be free.
‘That’s it, right between his legs!’ shouted Michael as I ran a few steps to steer it on its way.
I let go and the wheelbarrow shot down the drive, across the road, and caught a slight incline that launched it straight into Dickinson’s estate where it became lodged between his thighs. That's when the rubbish and a flame rushed up to lick his groin. It was only a split second before the explosion knocked me off my feet.
‘That was the blasting caps I put under the rubbish,’ explained Michael, ever the perfectionist, as he picked himself off the floor and dusted himself down.
I did the same as the door to Dickinson’s house opened and out came the Duke, pink bathrobe and a plastic shower cap on his head.
‘Who did this?’ he screamed. ‘Who did this?’
‘Excellent morning’s work, Dick,’ said Michael, shaking me by my hand. ‘Fancy a drink to celebrate our success?’
‘Why not, Michael,’ I replied. ‘And perhaps you could do me a favour?’
‘Anything. Anything at all.’
I looked towards his shed. ‘Fancy a bit of fish slapping?’
He smiled, those wonderfully kind eyes twinkling with boyish charm.
‘Haddock or bream?’ he asked.
‘Your choice, Michael,’ I said. ‘Your choice...’