There are times when the very existence of Stephen Fry seems to defy every known law of physics. I swear that the man has been cast by the Gods from some molten greatness that has hardened into a six foot nine inch monument to human potential. Poet, scholar, critic, actor, director, writer, stuntman, comedian, quiz show host, charity worker, environmentalist, after dinner speaker, technology expert, pipe smoker of the year: there is nothing that the man can’t do to perfection. He has saved my life on many an occasion and is now the first person I turn to when reduced to tears by the constant toils of this bad old world.
‘Ah, Richard,’ said Stephen, nestling my head against his great waist-coated breast and stroking my hair with those large fingered mitts of his. ‘There, there, indeed. Hush now. Calm yourself. Were I less compassionate man, I would say that this has been a long time coming and that it’s only right that you worry about your future. Cast out into the world of those horrid little satellite channels, I too would fear for my future. What if nobody watches me? What if I become a “has been”?’
I felt myself go rigid in his arms before he cooed and soothed me by flicking my earlobes.
‘However, being a man of great compassion, your Uncle Stephen would never dream of being so blunt. He would never compare you to Bobby Davro or Les Dennis, men who have realised that satellite TV is a boneyard filled with the remains of once glittering careers. Instead, I will gird you for the trials ahead with a few well chosen words of encouragement.’ With that he cleared this throat. ‘Indeed, Richard!’ said he. ‘You will be a star on satellite! You will be a veritable viewer magnet, attracting them in their tens of dozens from channels as far afield as Horse & Country, UK Gaming Plus and The Baby Channel. Who would choose to watch the British Sausage Awards hosted by Roland Rivron when they have you and Judy just ninety seven channel hops away?’
I wiped away my tears and tried to stand up. My legs felt like two strings of shop-soiled pork bangers with fractional meat content and plenty of buttock and beak.
‘That’s not why I’m crying,’ I said. ‘It’s just that I’m a little afraid of this altitude. Can’t you take me back down?’
Stephen stood back, smiled and reached for the cord leading up to the three gas nozzles. The basket was suddenly filled with the noise of rasping flames as Stephen encouraged his hot air balloon to even greater heights.
‘Ah, ’tis I, Fry, at ten thousand feet!’ proclaimed Stephen, his green cape flapping in the breeze that was pushing us towards Kent. ‘You must learn to soar, Richard. A man must know what it is to reach for the heavens, by whatever means. Look up and admire the firmament. Gaze upon its points sprinkled like glazed cherries on the not so small trifle of heaven. Above us is the Astra 2D satellite which is soon to become your new home. Reach for your destiny. Let destiny pluck you up as it once plucked me!’
‘I never agreed to plucking,’ I muttered, gazing down the thousands of feet towards Mother Earth where I’d left Judy sitting eating cheese and pickle sandwiches in the back of the Range Rover. I had started to regret accepting Stephen’s offer two minutes after lifting off. That’s when the large Richard&Judy banner advertising our new satellite show fell from its hanging place beneath his balloon and blanketed a housing estate. Now I wanted nothing more than to get back down to my wife and her rapidly improving knee.
Only, Stephen was too enchanted by the power of the burn. His hand kept pulling the cord and we kept climbing until the air turned so chilly that my nipples stood erect beneath my shirt. I feared that they’d never go soft again.
‘I think we should really begin to think about home,’ I said.
‘The majesty!’ cried Stephen, his eyes glazed with that look that all geniuses get when they are doing something beyond the normal. ‘The radiant firmament of heavenly splendour!’ Again he pulled the cord and I felt the balloon give a kick as it again began to climb.
‘I want Judy,’ I whimpered as we climbed towards the upper limit of the troposphere.
‘Ah, ’tis I, Fry! Godhead made manifest in comedic flesh on high!’
The man had clearly lost it. Or, at least, I thought he had. The truth is that I don’t really understand geniuses, however they come wrapped. I might leave the occasional comment over at ‘Thought Experiments’ but I know that the other readers pity me more than they respect me. And it was this inability to understand genius that served me so poorly hanging beneath Stephen’s balloon. It made me leap for one of the many ropes running up into the hot canopy. I gave the cord a pull thinking I might put a stop to this mad ascent. The noise of ripping fabric did nothing for my nerves but it did break Stephen’s rapture. I felt the sudden change from ascent to descent at the base of my stomach
‘Oh, Richard,’ said Stephen, shaking his head. ‘Were I a man given to angry outbursts I might say that you’ve consigned us to doom more terrible than UK Living Plus. Instead, I will merely say that you should not have done that. Tut and the full pish! And might I also be so bold as to say: damn these cheap Chinese hot air balloons...’
And what more can I say about Stephen? In a crisis, he’s a touch more reliable than a superman. With a calm and an agility that shouldn’t rightly be his own, he jumped over the side of the basket and clung onto the netting.
‘Don’t touch anything while I’m gone,’ he told me before he began to climb, his last ‘bless’ falling away on the first hint of the jet stream.
I leaned out and watched Stephen make his way up to where a three foot hole was gaping in the balloon’s fabric. Stephen worked a miracle in the next few minutes and he’s the only reason I’m sitting here today able to tell you this tale. If you’d been in the South East of England yesterday and looked into the sky, you might have witnessed a rapidly descending hot air balloon with a modern Icarus in tweed hastily using a green cape to fill the large tear in its side.
‘We’ll have to make an emergency landing,’ said Stephen a few minutes later. He swung back into the basket and took control with only a thousand or so feet to go. I wanted to reply but Stephen pushed me down into the bottom of the basket. ‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘This might be rougher than a night at the British Comedy Awards.’
His was no idle threat. The trees rushed us like Caroline Aherne on whisky chasers. Branches snapped around the basket and I witnessed one swipe Stephen from the basket. He gave a yell of ‘shudder!’ before he disappeared over the side. Then there was the heavy impact as the basket hit the ground. I recollect being thrown out and doing a prodigious amount of rolling before I blacked out. I remember nothing else until I opened my eyes some minutes later and saw an unmistakable shadow standing over me.
‘Almost a perfect landing,’ said Stephen, apparently unharmed by his fall. ‘I would congratulate myself on a job well done, only I have absolutely no idea where we are.’
I rubbed mud from my chest where my altitude hardened nipples had punched holes through my silk shirt and scooped up dirt. I was surprised to find myself in a corner of England untouched by the twentieth century. Greens were of a greener hue, the trees lined up to form the edge of some great oak forest. I too had no idea where we were until I peered into the middle distance and spotted a bush occupied by an old friend.
‘Isn’t that a Purple Hairstreak?’ I asked.
I knew that Stephen would know. ‘I believe it is,’ said the man last year voted Butterfly Hunter of the Year by ‘Which Butterfly’ magazine.
‘Then I know exactly where we are,’ I replied. ‘This is a small private estate in an undisclosed location of South East England. And if I’m not mistaken there should be an obscured entrance to a cave just beyond those trees.’
We walk the hundred yards to where a clever bit of topiary blocked off a path into the dense woodland. Fortunately, I knew the area and found the handle that drew back the old piece of wooden fencing disguised with branches. The entrance to the cave was where I remembered it from my last visit and Stephen followed me cautiously as I began to negotiate the long descent into the dark underworld.
We emerged in a brightly lit chamber, the sound of light classical echoing around its natural gothic aisles. High in the dark corners of the cave, eyes peered out from the many owls roosting there as though overseeing the small work area in the centre lit by bright lights. There a signed photograph of Bryan Appleyard was hung over a series of prints of UK moths. To the side, a picture of Petula Clark was pinned to a dartboard by a large hunting knife, while working at a desk at the centre of this tableau, sat the owner of the NigeCave there in the heart of the NigeCorp Country Park and Beetle Sanctuary. There sat the man known by criminals as ‘The Owl’; that genius who has created this sanctuary where butterflies have equal rights with sparrows and where otters frolic in streams of pure spring water that have risen through layers of English sedimentary rocks. There’s no German schist or Russian granite down there. Just pure English limestone, the purest chalk of old Albion and a chap in tweeds called Nige.
‘Hello Nige,’ I said. ‘Just crash landed a Chinese hot air balloon in your back garden. Hope you don’t mind me letting myself in.’
‘Richard!’ said Nige who I could see was holding a hunting knife with loving tenderness. ‘You’re just in time to help me put the finishing touches to this rabbit pie I’m preparing for supper. What on earth happened to your eye? And have you seen the state of your nipples?’
‘Hard to explain, Nige,’ I said and gestured towards Stephen. ‘Let me just say that I owe my life to the last of the great English Frys. Do you know Stephen?’
Stephen stepped forward and gave a bow. ‘Ah, Nige. I’ve heard so much about you.’
‘Nice tweeds,’ said Nige, slipping the knife back into his belt. ‘Reminds me of lines from Betjeman. “I used to butt my head into his tweeds / To make him hurry down those languorous miles.”’
Stephen gave a shudder of delight. ‘Ah, indeed, the man had neat of a turn of phrase. Butting tweeds indeed. Gracious me!’
‘Can you two forget turns of phrases and butting tweeds?’ I replied. ‘I need to get back to Judy. She goes toxic if she’s allowed to eat too much pickle.’
‘Fear not,’ said Nige, picking a throwing knife from a bandoleer over his shoulder and aiming it at a bell. He hit it plumb in the centre. His butler arrived moments later. A diminutive man with Asiatic qualities, we know little about the man except that Nige brought him back from his last trip in the East. ‘Ah, there you are Hung,’ said Nige. ‘Is the Nigemobile ready?’
Hung paused to pick up the knife. ‘I’ve just primed her with a new bucket of coal, sir,’ he replied to Nige’s evident satisfaction.
‘Nice to see you again,’ I said to the butler. ‘I take it that you’re are you well Hung?’
The man gave me the usual rueful smile as he handed the knife back to Nige.
‘Right then,’ said Nige, taking a leather driving helmet and goggles from a desk drawer. He bowed and crossed himself before pictures of the moths and the photograph of Bryan Appleyard before he waved us to follow him to the back of the cave. That’s where Stephen was surprised by a most unexpected sight.
‘My!’ said Stephen. ‘A 1924 Stanley Steamer. And with customised knife holders!’
‘Climb in,’ said Nige, who hopped into the driver’s seat and began to pump the controls of the steam powered engine. ‘I’ve had it modified. Can hit a top speed of nearly nineteen miles an hour on a straight.’ He lowered his goggles as I settled myself in the back seat, Stephen taking the passenger’s side. ‘Here we go!’
What a rush! The next four hours flew past as we raced back the three and a half miles to where I’d left Judy with her sandwiches. Occasionally, Nige would stop by a hedgerow to chop back some new growth with his favourite Bowie knife or hack a limb off a tree for future whittling but other than these few delays, we made good time. I was soon back to the car park where the sound of Judy loudly singing Dancing Queen warned me that she’d already gone too far with the pickles.
‘Thanks for the ride, Nige,’ I said as I reluctantly climbed out.
Stephen remained seated. ‘If you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘I think I’ll go back with Nige. I really couldn’t miss a chance to enjoy a 1924 Stanley Steamer for just a little while longer and I really should recover my balloon and cape.’
‘Well I’ll open the throttle this time,’ promised Nige, dropping his goggles down over those keen eyes of his. ‘We’ll take the long route back and we’ll be home for breakfast!’
‘Hooray!’ said Stephen.
‘Hooray, indeed!’ said Nige.
I waved them off. Two of the few reasons why I choose to stay in the forsaken mire of a country. Two of the reasons why I’m so certain that God wears tweed.