A few of you might be aware that one of my favourite countries is Belize, formerly British Honduras and about the size of Wales with a population no more than an average provincial town in UK. It was my first posting after Sandhurst and the Army had to drag me kicking and screaming onto the VC-10 bound for UK at the end of my tour. I begged them, I pleaded with them. I even offered to remain a Lieutenant for the rest of my military service if only they would let me see it out there.
No chance, sadly, and all too soon I was faced with life in cold, wet and oh so bloody miserable Colchester Garrison. Instead of Vodka Pimms on the beach it was now a phone call at four in the morning and yet another suspicious package for me to deal with in freezing cold horizontal bloody rain. Still, after all the money expended training me I suppose it was only fair HRH got a return on investment and there aren’t that many companies who would allow an employee to party in paradise for two whole years before taking up his appointment.
I shan’t even bother trying to explain the inestimable delights of ‘Raul’s Rose Garden Whore House (Double Green Stamps on Saturdays)’, I still have the T-shirt. Or the quality of the Rum and Cokes at Roger Dinger’s Bellevue Hotel (blimey, I have just realised I named a dog after him!) and then there was the fishing off the various Cayes and the shooting at Big Falls, the diving on the second largest barrier reef in the world and the sailing, windsurfing, canoeing, water skiing and a pay cheque at the end of every month. OK, the pay cheques were severely denuded by mess bills but at least we knew we hadn’t wasted the Queen’s shilling.
Then there were the people I met. The French Consul, an ex Austrian Nazi who took up the ‘offer you could not refuse’ from the French immediately after the war, joined the Foreign Legion and after fifteen years of very distinguished service was granted French Nationality and finally ended up with an official posting to Belize. Even at his age he had lost none of his Joie de Vivre and the blast of a bugle from his balcony in the early hours of the morning announced his frequent insomnia and the imminent start of yet another party. It was he who taught me an old trick, using his own comatose teenage son as a guinea pig, the lad having passed out after one too many rums and now sleeping comfortably on the floor, whereby laying the victim’s hand in a bowl of warm water would cause him to involuntarily wet himself. It worked within minutes and I was impressed.
His son, who woke up seconds later (Levi 501’s really do show up such accidents, don’t they?), was rather less so as he stormed off to his room. Still, we all thought it was funny. To get an invite, though, you definitely had to be part of his eclectic circle of friends and if you were young and potentially hot blooded, he would pay you a lot of attention, make you feel very welcome, take you aside and chat to you, allow you to tell him a little about yourself all the while steering you through his spacious house, the kitchen where he would collect a can of something, anything, could be beans, skinned tomatoes, it didn’t matter and then you found yourself on his upper floor balcony, alone with him, your elegant host, someone you have heard so much about and are absolutely thrilled to meet and delighted in the interest he takes in a mere mortal. Then he handed me the can and told me to throw it as far as I could off the balcony.
One of the advantages of just having passed out of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst was that I was still able to obey an order without question, especially one issued by someone who, for all I knew was probably an ex SS Obergruppenfuher so I hurled it up and as far as I could. I was then deafened by the report of a pistol he had pulled out from under his jacket and was stunned to see the can explode in mid air. Then he took me downstairs again and introduced me to the most breathtakingly attractive and sensual girl I had ever laid eyes on. This, he said, is my daughter.
We all got the subliminal message. No wonder we all stopped off at Raul’s on the way back. You know what they say, the difference between Light and Hard is that you CAN go to sleep with a light on.
Then there was the Paymaster. As servicemen, soldiers and officers alike, our pay would hit our UK accounts so we needed access to local funds, Belize Dollars, if in our free time we were to be able to hand the majority of it over to Raul and Roger. To simplify things for the Pay Corps, there was a Fixed Forces Exchange Rate that was established for every theatre of operations in which our gallant lads served. As it was only revised every few months or so, often there was a huge disparity between FFER and the commercial rate. Sometimes it was in our favour, other times not but none of us had the nouse to notice until one day I went into the pay office to cash a UK cheque for a few beer tokens and the paymaster, a Warrant Officer of Indian extraction muttered something to me. I hadn’t a clue what he said and in a loud voice I told him. Leaning over the counter he tried again, this time half covering his mouth. Ah, I thought, this is clandestine so I leant forward as well and whispered, ‘What?’
‘Sign as big a cheque as you can that won’t bounce’ he rasped.
Like I said, I was only after a few bob, beer tokens, but like I also said, I was fresh out of the Academy and still in awe of Warrant Officers so I wrote out a big one.
He stamped a few forms and then handed me over a brick of local currency and looked at me with that sort of, ‘Go on you dickhead, piss off quick’ expression on his face. I stood there with that sort of , ‘I’m just really, I mean REALLY stupid’ look on my face. He then executed what I now realise was the perfect cover move by suddenly yelling out, ‘Will someone please stop that bloody aircon squealing’ and while everyone else was distracted poking around a perfectly serviceable unit he pushed his face up close to mine and told me to go down to Barclay’s in Belize City and change it all back again into pounds sterling.
'Should I change into civvies first?' I hissed.
'You can go fucking naked for all I care, Sir, just piss off quick!'
Fucking Punka Wallahs, I thought. Everything is so bloody complicated with them. Shit, all I wanted was enough to have a blast on the town that weekend and now I have my life’s savings bulging out of my map pockets.
I wanted to go into town anyway as I had arranged to meet this really nice coloured girl from New Orleans I had met in Roger’s place a couple of night’s ago so I hopped a taxi and cut a slice to the city. I walked out of the bank and stared at the slip. Somehow or other I was eight hundred quid up on the cheque I had written that morning. Now for me, then, that was a month’s pay. Tax free. I looked at my watch. If the taxi driver really hauled ass I could be back before the pay office closed. With a bit of encouragement he hauled it alright and as I walked back into the pay office the paymaster smiled at me with a sort of beneficence and said, ‘Sterling into local currency, is it Sir?
‘If you wouldn’t mind, Chief’, I replied.
I had completely forgotten about the girl. And I kept forgetting about her all the rest of the week until over a Rum and coke in Raul’s, the paymaster told me that was it. Unless I could prove a substantial private income, I was way over my lieutenant’s pay and my name would leap off the page at any auditor if I pushed it. In fact, he went on to say, I had best buy something big and tangible so that if they did come sniffing around, I could say that was why I was signing big cheques, why I needed that amount of money in country. Now this was a guy that had helped me haul in nearly half a year’s pay in a week and had not asked me for a thing so naturally I felt I owed him, but I was scared to be so crass as to offer him a share of my windfall. I had realised after the second transaction that I had committed a court martial offence, only six months after being commissioned but I figured that if he ratted on me he would go down too so I consoled myself with that. If he was part of an elaborate sting operation, I was fucked but that really wasn’t, and still isn’t, the English style. Anyway, it was a one off, it was good while it lasted and now was the time to stack and leave the table. But I still wanted to sort him for the favour and I said so.
We drank some more Rum and cokes and watched the girls with their already too short skirts hauled up over their hips dancing in the pit, the lower dance floor area beyond the bar. By then we were chatting about his retirement plans. He had bought himself a big chunk of land along the Western Highway and was going to retire in Belize as a trader. What else for an Indian, I thought. Then he ordered himself a straight coke and another Rum and coke for me.
‘You’ve got a pilot’s licence’ he said. It was more a statement than a question.
‘It’s only a PPL, not commercial’ I said taking another swig and fending off a real tall girl I had been eying with a view to taking her round the back but she had pulled alongside a fraction too early now that conversation had resumed. The bad timing wasn’t her fault, it was all mine so I didn’t blame her when she skirted back into the crowd muttering in that strident way that we were a couple of poufs.
‘But you can fly a light aircraft, can’t you?’
‘Yes Chief, I can fly a plane.’
‘How are you going to keep your licence up in Belize? You need to do your annual hours, don’t you?’
That, Chief, I thought, is the big fucking problem. I need airtime but there were no aircraft in Belize insured for any pilot less than a CPL. Shit, I was carving 105mm cartridge cases that I had nicked from the stores into ashtrays in the REME workshops in order to bribe RAF support helicopter pilots to give me left hand seats in Pumas but none of that could count in my logbook. I needed PIC in a CAA registered light aircraft.
I have a friend, he said.
And that was the start of a beautiful relationship.