Tuesday, 14 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 11 Fingers of Improvidence (2)




There aren't too many occasions in adult life when you entrust yourself deliberately and unconditionally and with no means of withdrawal into the hands of a person not known to you. Surgeon, hypnotist, airline pilot, maybe. Confessor, financial adviser, dorsal tattoo artist. And escaped convict. Conversation wasn't easy. What are you supposed to say to someone who says he has just burst out of jail, stolen a Mercedes (for all we knew) and whose only preoccupation is to put as many kilometres between himself and the screws as fast as possible? An inane barbershop-cum-dentist's-waiting-room dialogue formed in my mind: Escaped from prison, you say? Well, there you go, squire. Some do, some don't. Turned out warm again, eh? See Dexter had a good knock last week, ton and a half v. Middlesex. Nice country round about here. Reminds me of Devon. Ever been to Devon, mein Herr? I couldn't have said this fluently in German, anyway. Eventually I put enough bad German together to ask him what he'd been put inside for: warum haben Sie in Gefängnis gewesen?

Betrug, Schwindel, he answered, which I took to mean fraud, but only because Schwindel sounded like 'swindle'. If this was true maybe things weren't so desperate. Weren't con-men usually gentle people, less violent than, say, murderers, rapists or gun-runners? Maybe we wouldn't be used as human shields when the police caught up with us? I started to consult George, but Herr Gefängnisvogel (i.e. gaolbird, but we didn't refer to him as this until much later) objected to us speaking in English. Meanwhile signs to Bonn on the right flashed past, and soon gave way to other towns further up the Rhine, Königswinter, Bad Honnef, Andernach, and I knew I would never get to Beethoven's birthplace.

It didn't matter. It didn't matter that we were probably accessories, that all this could end quite nastily. The great god Speed had gathered us to his bosom, his prophet Gefängnisvogel was preaching the word, George and I, lowly neophytes, could only worship and know the heavenly ecstasy of travelling at transcendent speed from A to - who knew where? It occurred to me that the great god in whose arms we were folded should have a grander, more magnificently remote name than 'Speed'. 'Velocity', 'Celerity', maybe, but then I thought No: the greatest gods have simple names, as easily accessible to the most humble as to the most exalted. Jehovah really means 'I am'; Jupiter is really a way of saying 'Dad'; maybe the god Speed should be known as 'Whoosh!' or 'Vroom!' or even, in a bizarre onomatopoeia for speed I saw in Mad magazine at about the time of this epic journey, 'Fagroon!'

Prophet Gefängnisvogel was clearly enjoying his liberty, humming and chuckling to himself while flakes of cigar ash snowed on to his tie and shirt-front. (Please don't ask what an escaped convict was doing wearing a tie.) Fast-lane kilometre swallowed kilometre, the speedometer needle seemed stuck on the 200kph mark, in a celebratory pageant of our juvenile understanding of Einstein's Theory of Relativity in which the Rhineland passed before our eyes, rather than our eyes passing over it. Rarely a glance from the Prophet in the rear mirror: wherever the avenging legions of Polizei were, they weren't on our immediate trail.

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