Neal Pollack's quite brilliant confession of near-Lexus-soilage prompted many colleagues who knew of a past struggle to urge me to tell my story publicly.
We arrived in Stuttgart on a sticky mid-summers' afternoon with a most splendid itinerary ahead of us. The year was 2000 and Porsche had celebrated the new millennium with a stunning turbocharged version of the 996. We were to collect a press loaner of this new 400hp, 4WD weapon and head to the German-Austrian border the following day for a rendez-vous with a Ferrari 360 and judge the ensuing tussle. Chasing these two would be our hire car, a dog-eared Mitsubishi Space Wagon purloined from one of the less glamorous rental shops.
These were some of the best days of my working life. The other parts of the first-person plural were Steve Sutcliffe, my partner-in-crime for several years and one of the few people who managed to get himself into as many scrapes as I did. And photographer Barry Hayden. Barry is quiet and kind and a great snapper; and a good man.
The Porsche was white, in an era when white was completely verboten on valuable European cars in Europe. It looked superb and in celebration we dawdled it into central Stuttgart for Barry to shoot some Swabian beauty shots for the Autocar Road Test that would accompany the Ferrari twin-test. Being British, we located a pretty town square, parked the car on the pedestrianized section secure in the knowledge that a local performance artifact would alleviate any legal issues, and Barry began creating his art. The Polizei never arrived.
Steven and myself were superfluous to this exercise, so we did what any Brit exposed to a brief glimpse of evening sunlight always does, and had ourselves a beer in the bar on the square. And another beer. And another beer.
Barry's sacrifice for his art went through the gloaming and into darkness until he was happy with the results, at which point Steve and myself were prompted to action our usual highly organized travel plans for such jobs. We asked the landlord of the bar if he knew of any rooms in town.
We stressed that accommodation close-by would be ideal on account of us being a bit tipsy, and he replied with genial German-ness that he knew of safe shelter, but winced a little when we suggested that we were too drunk to move the Porsche from the pedestrian area. The morning should be fine, he conceded.
Not driving when inebriated is a very good thing. This was proved a few minutes later when the Mitsubishi, ably piloted by one of us, and being shifted from one part of the small square we weren't supposed to be parked on to another part we weren't supposed to be parked on, reversed with impressive urgency – given the lack of run-up available – into a large lamp post thereby causing this 50ft steel prong to sag at forty-five degrees. We then stood around and nodded with admiration at the subtle, intelligent deformation of the Space Wagon's rear bumper, not to mention the typically impressive German engineering of the floodlight foundations – which hadn't budged and inch – before agreeing that Barry should probably move the Japanese dodgem somewhere where the authorities wouldn't find it. We also agreed that he probably should have been the one to undertake the maneuver that resulted in the lamp-post being semi-felled in the first place, being, as he was, completely sober. But these trips were the kindergarten of life for us, and we learned in future to let the non-drunk person do the close-quarters away-from-public-highway driving.
Those following the plot closely will be wondering why Barry couldn't have moved the 911 too. Well Barry didn't really want to pilot a left-hand-drive, very powerful Porsche around cobbled streets, and we fully sympathized with that view. Because we were a team and we loved him.
So much of a team that he only left us several hours later as we exited some bar in the small hours of the morning, insisting that we shouldn't be too late. "'Course we won't be Barry", we assured him with stoical Britishness – words that repeated on us as we staggered back to the rooms we'd rented, confused by the sight of a large orange orb in the sky and traffic not using headlights. Red Bull doesn't give you wings, it steals the nighttime.
We broke for a late lunch. The others ordered generic dishes – hamburgers and spaghetti Bolognese – whereas I let my inner-Teuton run free and plumped for the white offal sausage and sauerkraut.
Back at base, with the sun near vertical in the sky, Barry was now growing frantic. Steve and I were enjoying the trappings of our accommodation and so firmly in the land of nod that we couldn't hear the stones pinging against the window. Sorry Barry. We were sharing the spare room in the flat of a heroin user with such intense OCD that he reapplied – with that perfect upturned point I only thought possible in commercials- the toothpaste to his brush so that it was ready for the next scrub. But we were running late for the Austro-German border meeting with the Fandango, so we bid our friendly dragon chaser farewell, gave him his Marks and headed off into the Swabian hills.
We met the great Peter Robinson on those lower Alpine roads that are so good, so surrounded by perfect landscapes that they could never now be used in a movie for fear of being labeled computer generated. The Ferrari made Ferrari noises and the Porsche gathered the asphalt around it and scrapped between corners with a fucking-try-and-cover-ground-faster mentality that shocked us all. It was even fun to drive. These were the best of days: driving fast cars on great roads, taking great pictures, not being hurried by web stories and videos and sundry nonsense.
We broke for a late lunch. The others ordered generic dishes – hamburgers and spaghetti Bolognese – whereas I let my inner-Teuton run free and plumped for the white offal sausage and sauerkraut. Keen followers of plot may have spotted that this marks a significant point in the narrative.
The sausage was terribly good. I remember the taste even now – potent and well-seasoned. The texture was good too – just the right level of resistance from the outer skin to the human jaw, but then a sudden PING of submission as the exterior membrane broke and the cooked, minced entrails were freed. Aren't sausages just the best food? Especially when washed down with some heavily spiced and vinegared cabbage. I love sauerkraut. I loved sauerkraut.
I see no reason for selfishly hoarding the gift that is human wind on a truly dramatic scale, so when the sausage and cabbage began to coax some humor from my colon, I made sure to share its magnificence with my co-workers. I am a giving person. The lovely Barry managed a concerned smile, Peter, then in his late 50s chuckled guardedly and Steve I could tell was mightily impressed with my bottom burps. In my mind, and my mind alone, I was for those few hours, the funniest man in the Northern hemisphere – perhaps the entire world.
Do you have any idea where this story is headed? I thought you might.
The colonic cyclone grew ever more impressive and I continued to selflessly share its gift among my friends. Peter and Steve were now shooting details or driving or somehow separated from myself and Barry – we were in the Mitsubiushi and I was trumpeting with joy – both legs on the dashboard, funnier than Louis CK on speed. I have - I mean I had always behaved like this with supreme confidence because back then, at the tender age of 26 years, I had never followed-through. Please note the tense of that verb.
If Barry noticed the altered tone of the latest bottom outburst, he didn't let on. That's what I told myself anyway – I had to assume he was oblivious to the fact that I had not only deposited a remarkable quantity of effluent into my undercrackers, but had propelled it with the maximum force available from my pelvic wall. I was completely desolate at my predicament.
I clung to the one positive: Barry's idle banter hadn't changed, so I could assume he didn't yet know. Quite how, given I was wearing shorts, I will never be sure.
Now the devious part of my brain sprung into action. Aware that a sudden change in my perky demeanor would arouse suspicion in my Nikon wielding pal, I asked if he might wander the Mitsubishi close to a corner I thought might make for a decent photo-op, and continued chatting as if nothing had happened. You know when your own subterfuge skills actually begin to scare you? That's the one.
I couldn't bring myself to look down, to swivel and observe the mayhem – the way I can never watch Gloucester's eyes being gouged in King Lear. There's a comparison I never thought I'd make.
This corner I knew to be near a service station – if Barry could be persuaded to scout the location, I might just have enough time to scuttle around, open the trunk, grab a new pair of shorts from my bag, run knock-kneed to the service station, effect a quick change of garments and some manner of a clean-up operation and return as if nothing had happened. The chances of me escaping un-discovered were so slim I thought there was nothing to lose.
And yet the plan had begun perfectly – as if scripted. We parked, Barry wandered off, I grabbed the chance to move and immediately wished I hadn't – the stark terror of the situation dawned as my legs dropped from the vertical, through the horizontal and then towards the ground. You know you are in trouble when fluid courses down the back of your legs and meets the heel of your shoes. The sense of shame is overpowering – me a sentient adult, capable of shitting myself in public? How so?
And then the human mind proved just how fucked up it could be by playing the most terrible tricks on me – Barry was away now, I had a clear 100 yard run to the fuel station and was locked in some tragic internal debate as to how I should complete that journey. Go slow and controlled: retain dignity and confidence? Madness, even my swarthy, summer skin wouldn't be hiding the twin chocolate rivers of shame – so why not just run – run the way I used to when I was young and desperate, run so the wind cooled my ears, like my life depended on it? The result was the worst of both worlds, part attempted, dignified stroll interspersed with desperate lunges – all the while resisting the temptation to look at the collateral damage. I couldn't bring myself to look down, to swivel and observe the mayhem – the way I can never watch Gloucester's eyes being gouged in King Lear. There's a comparison I never thought I'd make.
But I made the fuel station. And I found the outside toilet, and it was empty. For all the inner-turmoil, this couldn't have been going better. I will spare you intimate details of the de-robing and genius use of the meager cleaning resources available to me – save to say that the process was adequate and far, far better than expected. The only quandary was the disposal of the soiled garments. Unable to pop the lid on the cistern, I was left with the option of carrying them outside and finding a trash receptacle, or stashing them behind the vast radiator which looked like a prop from Downton Abbey. To come this far and then be spotted marching across a fuel forecourt carrying soiled undercrackers was too much to countenance – I stashed them behind the radiator. Aristotle would have found significance in this choice.
I arrived back at the Mitsubishi wearing different shorts, but Barry didn't notice. He had decided the location was nothing special. He drove us back to meet the others. We wrapped for the day, went to a hotel and talked Porsches and Ferraris and as the minutes passed it dawned on me that I might well, against all odds, have escaped from certain humiliation. I grew confident. I had channeled a mental strength and dexterity I never knew existed within me and somehow come away unscathed. I slept the sleep of the man granted prolonged life. Phil Collins rang inside my head.
A fine Austrian morning greeted us and the two supercars – so fine that breakfast table discussions swiftly moved from the possibility of grabbing a few more shots, to the certainty of at least an hour's shooting before splitting to Modena and Stuttgart. I resisted, suggested that we didn't need the extra shots and generally dismissed the idea because the narrowness of my escape the day before still weighed heavily and I just wanted to be away from that place. Away from the German-Austrian border and my follow-through of doom. But I was the junior voice and overruled. But so what? I mean a few photos wouldn't change things.
"We can go and wash the cars down at the fuel station" proffered someone.
Sweet Jesus, no.
But again, did I really have anything to worry about? Yesterday was yesterday; today was another day. I calmed myself and followed the others to the fuel station, carrying a light air of confidence and pliability - I would do as my superiors bade me because I had nothing to hide.
Steve wandered off to the toilet. The same toilet that less than twenty-four hours earlier had appeared to me as if in a dream, the most perfect room on the planet; my savior. Steve returned, grinning. I couldn't understand why. "What have you done?", he asked bearing a huge smile. How could he possibly know? Yes, he might have seen some boxer shorts poorly hidden behind a radiator, but there was nothing else incriminating. They could be anyone's. Truckers are known to do odd things.
Only there was evidence.
There was a name-tag neatly sticking out from that poorly stashed undergarment, and it read: C. Harris.
I am and have always been so sartorially uninterested that I was still wearing clothes from my school days. I had been undone by one of my mother's name-tags – no doubt lovingly sewn into the garment as she watched Inspector Morse one Sunday evening. Little did she know the damage those stitches would wreak ten years later.
I couldn't deny the truth. There is no way of constructing a false narrative to explain the presence of soiled underwear, bearing your name, behind a radiator in a fuel station in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. You just have to smile, tell the lads what really happened and then watch their faces shift color and expression like human-octopi until all of you are reduced to tears. We laughed for a long time.
I tried so hard. I thought I had it sorted. I was undone by cruel fate.
And I will never allow my children's clothes to carry name-tabs, to save them should they ever find themselves in a similar situation.
Illustration by Sam Woolley