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Chapter no 107

Spare

MY MATES CAME TO me and reminded me of the Plan.

The Plan?

You know, Spike. The Plan?

Oh, right? The Plan.

We’d talked about this before, months earlier. But now I wasn’t sure.

They gave me the hard sell. You’re going to war. Staring death in the face.

Right, thanks.

You have a duty to live. Now. Seize the day. Seize the—?

Carpe diemOK…what?

Carpe diem. Seize the day.

Ah, so it’s two ways of saying the same thing then— Vegas, Spike! Remember? The Plan.

Yes, yes, The Plan, but…seems risky. Seize the—!

Day. Got it.

I’d had an experience, recently, that made me think they weren’t altogether wrong, that carpe diem was more than empty words. Playing polo that spring in Brazil, to raise money for Sentebale, I’d seen a player take a hard fall from his horse. As a boy, I’d seen Pa take that same fall, the horse giving way, the ground simultaneously smacking and swallowing him. I remembered thinking: Why’s Pa snoring? And then someone yelling: He’s swallowed his tongue! A quick-thinking player jumped from his horse and saved Pa’s life. Recalling that moment, subconsciously, I’d done likewise: jumped off my horse, run to the man, pulled out his tongue.

The man coughed, began to breathe again.

I’m fairly sure he wrote a sizable check later that afternoon to Sentebale. But equally valuable was the lesson. Carpe your diems while ye may.

So I told my mates: OK. Vegas. Let’s go.

A year before, after exercises in Gila Bend, my mates and I had rented Harleys, ridden from Phoenix to Vegas. Most of the trip went unnoticed. So now, after a farewell weekend with Cressida, I flew to Nevada to do it again.

We even went to the same hotel, and all chipped in on the same suite.

It had two levels, connected by a grand staircase of white marble, which looked as if Elvis and Wayne Newton were about to descend arm in arm. You didn’t need to take the stairs, however, since the suite also had a lift. And a billiard table.

The best part was the living room: six massive windows looking onto the Strip, and arranged before the windows was a low L-shaped sofa where you could gaze at the Strip, or the distant mountains, or the massive wall-mounted plasma TV. Such opulence. I’d been inside a few palaces in my time, and this was palatial.

That first night, or the next—it’s a bit of a neon blur—someone ordered food, someone else ordered cocktails, and we all sat around and had a loud chat, catching up. What happened to everyone since we’d last been in Vegas?

So, Lieutenant Wales, raring to go back to war? I amI really am.

Everyone looked taken aback.

For dinner we hit a steakhouse, and ate like kings. New York strips, three kinds of pasta, really nice red wine. Afterwards, we went to a casino, played blackjack and roulette, lost. Tired, I excused myself, went back to the suite.

Yes, I thought with a sigh, sliding under the covers, I’m that guy, turning in early, telling everyone to please keep it down.

The next morning we ordered breakfast, Bloody Marys. We all headed off to the pool. It was pool-party season in Vegas, so a big blowout was raging. We bought fifty beach balls and handed them out, as a way of breaking the ice.

We really were that nerdy. And needy.

That is, my mates were. I wasn’t looking to make new friends. I had a girlfriend, and I aimed to keep it that way. I texted her several times from the pool, to reassure her.

But people kept handing me drinks. And by the time the sun was dipping over the mountains I was in rough shape, and filling up with…ideas.

I need something to commemorate this trip, I decided. Something to symbolize my sense of freedom, my sense of carpe diem.

For instance…a tattoo? Yes! Just the thing!

Maybe on my shoulder? No, too visible.

Lower back?

No, too…racy.

Maybe my foot?

Yes. The sole of my foot! Where the skin had once peeled away. Layers upon layers of symbolism!

Now, what would the tattoo be?

I thought and thought. What’s important to me? What’s sacred? Of course—Botswana.

I’d seen a tattoo parlor down the block. I hoped they’d have a good atlas, with a clear map of Botswana.

I went to find Billy the Rock to tell him where we were going. He smiled.

No way.

My mates backed him up. Absolutely not.

In fact, they promised to physically stop me. I was not going to get a tattoo, they said, not on their watch, least of all a foot tattoo of Botswana. They promised to hold me down, knock me out, whatever it took.

A tattoo is permanent, Spike! It’s forever!

Their arguments and threats are one of my last clear memories from that evening.

I gave in. The tattoo could wait till the next day.

Instead, we trooped off to a club, where I curled into the corner of a leather banquette and watched a procession of young women come and go, chatting up my mates. I talked to one or two, and encouraged them to focus on my mates. But mostly I stared into space and thought about being forced to forgo my tattoo dream.

Around two A.M. we went back to our suite. My mates invited four or five women who worked at the hotel to join us, along with two women they’d met at the blackjack tables. Soon someone suggested we play pool,

and that did sound fun. I racked the balls, started playing eight-ball with my bodyguards.

Then I noticed the blackjack girls hovering. They looked dodgy. But when they asked if they could play I didn’t want to be rude. Everyone took turns, and no one was very good.

I suggested we up the stakes. How about a game of strip pool? Enthusiastic cheers.

Ten minutes later I was the big loser, reduced to my skivvies. Then I lost my skivvies. It was harmless, silly, or so I thought. Until the next day. Standing outside the hotel in the blinding desert sun I turned and saw one of my mates staring at his phone, his mouth falling open. He told me: Spike, one of those blackjack girls secretly snapped a few photos…and sold them.

Spike…you’re everywhere, mate.

Specifically what was everywhere was my arse. I was naked before the eyes of the world…seizing my diem.

Billy the Rock, now studying his phone, kept saying: This isn’t good, H.

He knew this was going to be hard for me. But he also knew it wasn’t going to be any fun for himself and the other bodyguards. They could easily lose their jobs over this.

I berated myself: How had I let it happen? How had I been so stupid? Why had I trusted other people? I’d counted on strangers having goodwill, I’d counted on those dodgy girls showing some basic decency, and now I was going to pay the price forever. These photos would never go away. They were permanent. They’d make a foot tattoo of Botswana look like a splodge of Indian ink.

My sense of guilt and shame made it hard at moments to draw a clean breath. Meanwhile, the papers back home had already begun skinning me alive. The Return of Hooray Harry. Prince Thicko Strikes Again.

I thought of Cress reading the stories. I thought of my superiors in the Army.

Who would give me the heave-ho first?

While waiting to find out, I fled to Scotland, met up with my family at Balmoral. It was August and they were all there. Yes, I thought, yes, the one

thing missing from this Kafkaesque nightmare is Balmoral, with all its complicated memories and the pending anniversary of Mummy’s death just days away.

Soon after my arrival I met Pa at nearby Birkhall. To my surprise, to my relief, he was gentle. Even bemused. He felt for me, he said, he’d been there, though he’d never been naked on a front page. Actually, that was untrue. When I was about eight years old a German newspaper had published naked photos of him, taken with a telephoto lens while he was holidaying in France.

But he and I had both put those photos out of our minds.

Certainly he’d felt naked many times before the world, and that was our common ground. We sat by a window and talked for quite a long time about this strange existence of ours, while watching Birkhall’s red squirrels frolic on the lawn.

Carpe diem, squirrels.

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