Before dashing out of the door and driving to Nice airport, I gave my eyebrows a quick trim with the electric grooming razor Father Christmas gave me. In my tearing haste, however, I forgot to clip on the length regulator and in two sweeps shaved them right off, leaving two bald white strips.
I was last to board the plane. While everyone else queued in the stifling airbridge while the plane was prepared, I had remained in my comfortable seat in the sunny departure lounge reading Sir Michael Holroyd’s hilarious life of Augustus John. Seat 9F was the aisle seat of a row of three, and the pair of chaps already belted in to seats D and E looked utterly devastated by the last-minute occupation of their empty seat by a casually late arrival with no eyebrows. The guy beside me was wearing decidedly vulgar, shiny tracksuit bottoms. His chubby pal had on short shorts and a polo shirt, and his arms and legs were coated with curling orange hairs. Their dashed hopes of some extra space for the duration of the flight had left them touchingly forlorn. My apology was acknowledged through gritted teeth.
All around were young football supporters heading back to Stansted from the Riviera. ‘Have you both been down for the football?’ I said, hoping to ameliorate my unpopularity by being chatty. They drew themselves up in indignation — two Frankie Howerds affronted by the preposterousness of the idea. ‘No, we have not. We didn’t even know it was on,’ said the tracksuit-bottomed one. ‘But we do now,’ chipped in the hairy one, whose voice was exactly that of the Sixties comic Charlie Drake. ‘We saw the Northern Ireland fans fighting the police in Nice old town. One of them died, you know,’ he said. ‘Fell off a lamppost,’ he added, respectfully mouthing the shocking words rather than speaking them.
I sensed that I was now forgiven. In fact they were friendly souls, keen to chat, un-ashamed about trying to pinpoint my position on the social scale. Going on whim, they had spent a week exploring Nice, just to see what the place was like. ‘Would you go back?’ No, they said; they wouldn’t. They couldn’t find much in Nice to interest them. And the train they caught to Cannes was so crowded because of the strike they had both nearly suffocated. Nearly suffocating on a train had eclipsed everything, even the football fans fighting in the old town.
They wondered if I had been down for the football myself? I was down visiting friends, I said, and was now returning to cast my vote in the EU referendum. In case they were wondering, I said, I would be voting ‘out’ as many times as they’d let me. Here they exchanged archly significant looks and confessed to being split on the matter. Tracksuit bottoms wanted to remain, Charlie Drake was hoping to leave, giving as his main reason that ‘south London these days is becoming a toilet’.
When the drinks trolley hove to, the hairy one unexpectedly jettisoned his dignity, clapped his hands above his head and sung out for champagne. The easyJet stewardess was as personable and as solid cockney brass as Barbara Windsor. ‘All I got is Prosecco, darlin’,’ she said tragically. Not a bit disappointed, he said he’d have two bottles. One had the impression that if she’d had only neat rubbing alcohol, and no ice, a couple of scoops of that would have hit the spot equally as well. I had the blueberry muffin plus a hot drink deal.
Now cruising above a carpet of clouds we settled down: they to their drinks, I to my biography. Augustus John has had another fistfight, his latest mistress another abortion, and a female aristocrat was chasing him all over Europe, assisted by a private detective of astonishing genius. John isn’t painting well at the moment.
As an extended apology for the disappointment of my late arrival, I didn’t contest the shared armrest. Satin tracksuit bottoms got out his laptop and headphones and watched a luridly lit song-and-dance stage extravaganza with evident enjoyment. Later he surfed a double-glazed window online catalogue, and he and his friend discussed at length the finer technical details of a set of triple-glazed, energy-efficient, turn-and-tilt windows, featuring extra security features at no extra cost, including a multi-point locking system.
And so the flight passed pleasantly enough, and before we knew it, we were looking down on lush Essex fields, and as we landed, I looked out as usual for the shell of the old farmhouse that still stands within the airport perimeter, Fern Hill, where I and my country cousins used to play when we were kids, and my Aunt fed the pigs with discarded airline meals.
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