Postcard from Lille, Part 32

Always worth Saying, Going Postal
Kimberley Calling
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

There’s a game to be played with airline names. BA, British Airways, is re-named, ‘Bloody Awful’, Alitalia become ‘Always Late in Take-off and Landing’.  And if you don’t realise SAA stands for ‘Sodding Awful Airline’ then you’ve never been called, at the last minute, all the way down to Jo’berg where your father’s maiden aunt’s God mother has got herself into a bit of a pickle over a big bag of Kimberley diamonds.

I’m grateful to an unread commenter who reminds us that Pakistan International Airlines becomes ‘Passengers in Agony’.

From Dubai to Karachi is just a short hop, about two hours, with not much time between climbing up the way, before heading down the way again. You might not be surprised by the boily heat in the Gulf but the cold might come as a shock. Yes, at times it was frosty, at times it snowed.

Karachi to Dubai was a fairly busy route with migrant workers going back and forward from Pakistan, and further afield, to work in the Gulf. Then as now, many of the gentlemen worked on construction sites and many of the ladies worked as domestic servants. Children worked as camel jockeys. Not all of them survived. It was surprising who you might sit beside. A few colourful characters stand out.  This was about the time when the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) collapsed in a heap with allegations flying around of it being a criminal exercise with sacks of money going in all directions un-accounted for.

Consumer advice: it’s too late now, but you should have had a BCCI credit card as they made no attempt whatsoever to recover funds from their retail creditors. In among the chaos was a ‘Crafty Chap’, his self-description, we will call him Dr Mohammed, who went back forward, back forward on collapsing BCCI business. I’m a great believer in ‘watch and learn’. The border collie pups go out with the sheep dog and copy it. Cadet police officers used to be paired off with an old flat-foot and soaked up some good old-fashioned coppering, without really trying.

Dr Mohammed was worth following about. If you were ever in a queue at a check-in and you overheard two chaps asking for,

‘Smoking, kosher [brave in Pakistan], whites and their servants only’,

it might have been myself and Dr Mohammed bagging two seats in the emptiest part of the plane and making sure we got fed before everybody else.

Drinks were complimentary. A mile-high club ensued. Wine was unavailable, beer not possible, spirits strictly forbidden, we had to drink the air fare in Seven Up. Very silly but why not?

As ever I was tormented by pretty girls. One time I sat beside a covered woman, head to toe in a black sheet. She wandered off, presumably to the comfort room, but then a very attractive girl with hardly any clothes on sat in the empty seat.

‘I’m awfully sorry miss’, I ventured, ‘but that’s someone’s place.’

‘Yes mine, you cretin’, she was kind enough to note, while pointing at a queue of covered ladies with skimpies in their carrier bags waiting for the toilet compartment, while another queue of ladies, dressed in skimpies with their burkas in carrier bags, made their way back to their seats.

The same thing used to happen on the busses. In private, ladies would come up and chat away to me as if they knew me and it would turn out that they’d seen me on the bus, myself sat at the back as was the local custom, while they sat at the front, not only unrecognisably covered but also with a hand across the face, looking to the ground as I walked past.

Being pretty and barely clothed, my airline companion was invited up to the flight deck. I tagged along. There being an empty seat, and a bit of Anglofilia about the place in those days, I was invited to strap myself in behind Captain Ali and join in. It all sounds great fun. Be careful what you wish for.

Do you want to watch other people do their jobs? Maybe. Would you like to watch while the surgeon operates on you? Maybe not. A good referee should be invisible. If you notice him and hear his whistle an awful lot then he’s making a mess of it. Likewise, there’s only so many times an airline captain can say ‘hope we make it’ before it threatens to spoil the flight.

Many of the planes were ‘Combos’, a combination of passengers in the front and cargo in the back. Does this make them more difficult to fly? I have no idea and was too frightened to ask. Captain Ali did mention ‘ice’ and that the plane was icing up. I’ll take his word for it, as by that point I had my spectacles off and was in the brace position, looking at my boring knees instead of all those exciting dials.

He reassured me that, ‘If we do crash, you’ll be one of the first to know about it.’

I think it was a joke.

Norman Tebbit used to tell a good tale about the ‘Jesus Christ’ switch. Tridents (or was it VC 10s?) could be a bit tetchy and when they became completely unresponsive, the last resort was to switch everything off and switch it back on again via a big red handle, while everybody else on the fight deck screamed ‘Jesus Christ, Norman!’.

If such a thing happened on Captain Ali’s Combo, it was drowned out by my knocking knees and chattering teeth.

Another time I was sat beside an impressive and very polite chap, smartly dressed. As people wandered past, I heard them mutter,

“Was im a cram, was im a cram”,

which didn’t make any sense, so I turned to him and said,

“Excuse me, what does ‘Was im a cram’ mean? It doesn’t mean engine fire does it?”

“I’m Wasim Akram”, he replied.

There was a long pause accompanied by my blank look. He helped me out,

“I play for Pakistan. Cricket. I’m the captain.”

Pakistan Airline’s agony being, in this case, the agony of my embarrassment.

Back in our game you may guess at Philippine Airlines (PAL) meaning ‘Plane Always Late’, but for one blissful spell of hope filled anticipation it meant, ‘Pope Arriving in Luzon’.

Always worth Saying, Going Postal
Pope Francis
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

I’ve met three Popes. What a night out that was. Benedict XVI, a dot on the horizon, I was put at the back with the sinners and Protestants. Pope Francis, close enough to chat to. Diego Maradona was there too, on his very best behaviour, presenting the Holy Father with a football shirt, unfortunately Argentina. I’m in the official photos if you’re interested, I’m not the one you think I am.

John Paul II, now a saint, on the other side of bullet proof glass, and who, might I humbly suggest, owes me an intercession or three.

The Philippine Elections out of the way and the country now being on a better footing, there was scope for a Papal visit. Safely back in Manila after lying low following a slight misunderstanding over painkillers for prisoners, my business associate Gisele and myself were keen to help, both from a standpoint of faith and of a business networking opportunity. This resulted in two parallel pathways, lots of trips to church and lots of meetings.

‘All those cousins. I have eighty-seven myself, forty-two on Nini’s side and forty-five on Papa’s. If the blessed day comes when I find the partner God intends for me, I shall have to remember each and every one to the wedding, and their spouses, and their children. If I forget one cousin, eeeek ’, Gisele drew a finger across her throat, ‘I will never be forgiven and be for the firing squad. And perhaps my betrothed might have ninety-seven?’, she laughed.

Gisele managed to make a five mile per hour crawl through gridlocked traffic into a white-knuckle ride. She talked incessantly, looking straight at me as she chatted, neglecting the road ahead. The car bounced about, across pot holes and road works as if (but miraculously somehow never) striking other vehicles. Consumer advice; if you see a gap, look away, blow your horn, put your foot down and go for it.  It doesn’t matter what side of the road it is on. She chastised me as I tried to grab the steering wheel. She slapped my hand.

‘We must go to Robinson’s mall, straight to the front of every queue. Damn, I could have worn my shorts accompanied by a white. They say it’s racism but it’s money-money. You Englishman and those damned blue eyes. Front of every queue.’

At the roadwork’s at Guadeloupe Bridge, she bounced the car onto the wrong carriageway. We were stopped by a police officer and had to wind a window down, fettling the aircon. Gisele tore a strip off him. Didn’t he know who she was? Look at the permits on the windscreen and the diplomatic plates. She was driving for an English businessman. In the next breath she promoted me to ‘diplomat’. The officer stood his ground and answered her back. He reached for his notebook. She put her foot down and the car jumped forward. She applied the brake, gaining ten yards before the back of a jeepney (with four people hanging from it), stopped her. She lurched sideways into a gap in the traffic, blowing the horn. For the first time ever, she checked her mirrors, looking for the police officer. He wasn’t to be seen.

We stopped again, in the middle of the carriageway, and she put me in the back seat to make me look more like an ‘Acting Deputy Head of Chancery’.

In the annoying way in which women can do more than one thing at a time, we were having a business meeting, doing lots of shop-shop, whilst juggling a family feud. We also had to visit seven churches in seven hours,

‘It is good luck for the Holy Father’, I was reliably told.

She decided a badge on the windshield entitled us to park right beside security at Robinson’s Mall. If, next time you visit the superstore, as well as ‘Disabled’ and ‘Mother and Toddler’ there is also ‘Armoured Car’, stencilled on the (melting) tarmac, then you know all is not well.

‘Tell them you have Dollars not Pesos. You do have Dollars?’ She made a hissing noise. ‘We’ll change them back again later, I know a place.’

In the searing heat, we walked straight to the front of the queue at the entrance to the mall. Neither of us were searched by the guards. Inside was an Aladdin’s cave of consumer goods, including all the things that would never survive the heat outside, such as chocolate and milk. I ate and drank while shop-shop, keeping the wrappers for the till. Something else the natives weren’t allowed to do.

Gisele filled two hand baskets with all sorts, as if on a supermarket sweep.

‘You must advance me a thousand Pesos’, she announced as though I was doing her a favour. I thanked her as I handed over the notes.

‘You English gentleman, you smile and say thank you every time you get ripped off.’

She lifted the full baskets to my face.

‘But this is good. It will oil the wheels.’

We went straight to the front of the checkout queue, ignoring the other customer’s groans and hisses. The girls at the till checked and wrapped our buys. They were double wrapped in paper bags and then in polythene. Finally her packages were stapled closed with the receipt attached across the join. Gisele bundled them into my arms.

‘If these goes boom in ESDA they will blame the bombing on Robinsons’.

She enjoyed that. She laughed aloud and giggled again later as she re-told the story to everyone we met that day, on our pilgrimage to the seven churches.

Our first holy place was to be an orphanage. Very short of cousins, I have contacts instead, and since arriving back in Manila I’d been fighting with the long distance and international phone lines to speak to them. I had made excellent progress.  At the orphanage, I hoped an Irish nun would be able to complete a complicated picture for me. At the other six holy places, we would pray-pray-pray as a great danger approached.  Allow me to tell you what I had found out.

To be continued ….

© Always Worth Saying 2019