Men like Jeremy Clarkson are made for moments such as this. He has that indeterminable spirit of a wayward Fury, partly destructive yet with a remarkable caprice for making things better. You cannot stand in his way once he gets an idea into his head, which was exactly what was needed this morning when our resolve began to falter. If it hadn’t been for Jeremy, Judy might never have got her Christmas present. You see, he’s that integral to a successful festive season.
All that, however, is to get to the bacon before we’ve greased our lips with egg. The whole thing began after breakfast, this morning, when my gift to Judy arrived at the appointed hour and in perfect condition. She was not home at the time. I’d managed to get her out of the house by arranging for Denise Robertson to drop by at ten o’clock and suggest a bit of last minute elbowing through the Christmas crowds. That part of the plan went off like a clockwork pie. With Judy out of the way, the next stage could go ahead. A black London taxi arrived at ten thirty with our expert in the back.
‘Do you have to bother with that thing?’ asked Bill Oddie as he waited for Stephen Fry to finish fixing a lock to his steering wheel.
‘One can never tell with celebrity neighbours,’ replied Fry, which only led Oddie to make a rather mean remark about the intellect of men who drive London taxi cabs.
‘Stephen’s right,’ I said. ‘Just because many of the people in this street are respectable entertainers, it doesn’t mean that they’re not prone to the occasional bit of car theft. A Channel 4 executive recently told me that a high profile member of the spring schedule has a thing for doing doughnuts in bent super minis.’
‘I’ve heard the same rumours,’ said Bill, ‘though I don’t believe it has actually got anything to do with cars.’
If I looked shocked and not a little confused, I hadn’t time to dwell on it. A roar of a jet engine filled the street as Clarkson’s supercar fell from the sky.
‘So?’ he asked, an excited flush to his cheeks. ‘Has it arrived yet?’
I checked my watch. ‘Any time now, if the plan is going as arranged.’
Stephen took out a pocket watch from the front of his waistcoat and flipped open its cover. ‘I don’t see why it shouldn’t, given that I gave the plan its conception,’ he said. ‘If I have my numbers right, we should see the van arriving in three… two… one…’ He pointed to the end of the road.
‘Zero?’ asked Clarkson, snorting his amusement. That’s why he missed the large blue truck making a turn at the bottom of the road.
‘Ah,’ said Stephen, ‘I see that its front right tyre is low on pressure. That would more than account for a few seconds delay between here and central London.’
Bill gave a whistle, which sounded not unlike the appreciative note of a song thrush. I could only share his admiration for the man. You have admire such a brain. I have an urge to write Fry a verse drama using nothing but alexandrines in the New Year. Heroic couplets made from iambs just wouldn’t do him justice. I swear that there are moments in the day when I sometimes believe that he knows more than me.
‘Well gentlemen,’ said Clarkson, slapping his hands together. ‘Shall we get started?’
‘I think this is a most wonderful idea,’ said Stephen as we walked to the foot of the drive. ‘Were it my own, I would write about it in a novel.’
I slapped my old friend about the shoulder. ‘It was you who inspired me to be so bold,’ I replied. ‘Didn’t you tell me that there’s no gift as welcome as the gift of surprise?’
‘I may have remarked on that,’ he replied, ‘though perhaps in a manner that was both more witty and infinitely more succinct.’
As the lorry hissed to a stop at the foot of the drive, I felt something moving beneath my elbow. I looked down to see Oddie at my side. He was peering nervously at me over his glasses. ‘Do you have any idea about how difficult this is going to be?’
‘You’re the bird man,’ I said. ‘We’ll follow your lead. You said you’ve done this in Africa.’
He looked again at the van, which was blocking out the low December sun. Oddie doesn’t respond well to the gloom.
‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ he said.
It was much too late for doubts. The van’s driver was climbing out. He was a pasty looking fellow with a slight limp. This we only noticed when he dropped from the cab and winced as his right leg hit the ground.
‘That looked painful,’ I said as we approached.
‘Bloody thing took half an inch of flesh from my shin this morning,’ he said. ‘You Madeley?’
‘I am,’ I said. ‘Half an inch?’ I whistled between my teeth. It sounded nothing like a song thrush.
‘You’ve got to watch it with these things,’ said the driver. ‘They’re a bit dangerous.’
‘Rubbish,’ scoffed Clarkson. ‘I’ve been behind the wheel of an Ascari A10. Now that’s danger.’
‘Yes, well, mate, if you say so. But I know what I know. This ain’t something you should treat lightly.’
I turned and gestured to Bill. ‘Do you recognise this man?’ I asked.
‘Course I do,’ smiled the driver. ‘Mr. Oddie is a TV legend.’
‘Then you know I’ve ensured we’ve got the best in the business to handle this transaction.’
The driver shrugged and began to walk us to the back of the van. ‘If you say you know what you’re doing, who am I to argue?’ he asked.
The rear doors of the van opened to reveal a large cage inside. Inside the cage was my gift to Judy.
‘That’s a bloody big ostrich,’ said Stephen as the bird pecked violently at the cage.
I gave Stephen a surprised look. ‘That’s a bit prosaic of you,’ I said. ‘It was a line remarkably flat for a man of your calibre.’
‘One was momentarily distracted by the abundance of ostrich,’ he replied. ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’
I took a look at the bird. It was indeed a creature long in the leg and neck and with remarkable plumpness about its body. I then looked towards Bill hid behind Clarkson’s right knee. He too was remarkably plump about his body but his legs were visibly trembling.
‘I had to order the stoutest ostrich they had on the farm,’ I explained. ‘Do you think it’s okay?’
‘You certainly did that,’ replied Jeremy, moving to open the cage. ‘Look at those thighs. They’ll be able to handle the weight.’
It took Bill, Stephen, Jeremy, and myself a good half hour of coaxing to get the ostrich out of the cage and into the back garden. It was the sort of bird that really belongs in burlesque, more feathers than flesh and with the attitude of a slightly bad tempered stripper. If we hadn’t had Jeremy with us, I doubt if we’d have shifted the animal. Years of living with donkeys seem to have given him a special insight into the workings of stubborn animals.
By the time Judy arrived home at one, the whole scene was set. I went out to meet her at the car and, after covering her eyes with my hand, I escorted her into the back garden where events were due to unfold.
‘Well,’ I asked as I pulled my fingers from Judy’s eyes.
The sight to greet her was one of the most remarkable I think I’ll ever witness. Bill Oddie was racing around the back garden on the back of the ostrich, as Jeremy Clarkson held the end of a long reign. He used the free end to lash the bird onwards, keeping it running in a giant circle around our expansive back lawn. Meanwhile, Stephen was sitting to one side, reciting a special poem he’d written for the occasion. All three were clearly in their element, and Bill enjoying himself more than any. Holding on with one hand, he used the other to wave frantically as he shouted comic things like ‘get me off’ and ‘I’m going to fall’ and ‘I don’t like this’. Like I’ve said before, the man is of the highest order of good sports.
After a few moments, Judy looked at me.
‘Richard,’ she said, ‘why is Bill Oddie riding an ostrich around our lawn?’
‘It’s my Christmas gift to you,’ I explained. ‘Unfortunately, I couldn’t arrange it for tomorrow. The ostrich farm could only deliver it today.’
I hadn’t bargained for her to look so confused. ‘You thought I’d want this for Christmas? You thought I’d want to see Bill Oddie riding an ostrich?’
‘Well, no, not technically. Bill is just showing you how it’s done so you’ll know what to do when it’s time for you to have a go.’
‘I’m having a go?’ She laughed a bark of amusement. ‘Richard, you must be joking. You don’t honestly think I’m getting on that?’
‘Well it is what you asked for,’ I replied.
‘You think I’d want to ride an ostrich?’
‘Well that’s what you said! Two weeks ago when I mentioned about Christmas, you said you’d love to ride an ostrich.’
Judy’s face broke out into a wide grin. ‘What I said, Richard, if you’d bothered to unplug yourself from your iPhone, was that I’d love to be treated to a ride in an old stretch limo.’
‘You said ostrich!’ I protested.
She shook her head slowly. ‘Old stretch,’ she said and planted a kiss on my cheek. ‘But it was a lovely thought. And when it comes to memorable Christmas gifts, I don’t think there’s anything I’m going to remember with such fondness. How many women can say they’ve had Bill Oddie ride an ostrich for them for Christmas.’
‘Not even Mrs. Oddie,’ I admitted.
Well, what else could I do or say? I was utterly confused. In the end, I put my arm around my wife and we watched Bill as he carried on riding the bird, which never seemed to tire as it was whipped on faster and further by a quite gleeful Jeremy Clarkson. I wished that the moment would never end. Which it didn’t. Or at least, not for another hour filled with mirth and comic pleas for us to stop.