It was a new travel agency, with an intriguing slogan. It said: WE FIT YOU FOR YOUR HOLIDAY. It was just what I needed. Every time I go on holiday, I arrive entirely unfit for it. I arrive in Venice with no knowledge of its history. I go to Spain unsure whether bull-fighting is in or out this year. Once I went to Llandridnod Wells and couldn’t even pronounce it. This time I wanted to be sure.
‘Hello,’ I said to the man. ‘Next week I am going to the Bahamas. So I want you to fit me for it. I want you to get me brown, rippling with muscles or at least a muscle or two, and equipped with the rudiments of snorkelling. Who was Snorkel and when did he invent it? Who was Subaqua, come to that? And I know that Calypso was a nymph written about by Homer, but how come she wrote all those great songs? I have my air ticket here, so fit me for it. And if you know how to pronounce Llandridnod Wells, so much the better.’
The man looked me up and down, much as one might look at a child’s painting which has just been submitted for the Royal Academy Summer Show. He took hold of my air ticket to the Bahamas. He tore it into little pieces. Then he spoke.
‘Sending you to the Bahamas would be a waste of time. Worse than that, it would be a crime against taste. To put your body on a Bahaman beach would be like putting a fish finger in Harrods Fish Hall. And I am afraid you have not understood the purpose of our agency. We do not get you ready for your holiday – we find the holiday that is right for you. A man cannot be changed in a week, he can only be sent to the right forwarding address, and it is our job to find out which holiday you deserve. Do you mind if I ask you some searching questions?’
Searching? After he had asked his questions, I felt I had been ransacked. He grilled me for two hours about my childhood, my education, my feelings about my parents and even my belief in God.
‘I have a special arrangement with God,’ I said. ‘I don’t meddle in his business, and he doesn’t meddle in mine. But what have my beliefs got to do with my holiday?’
‘Everything. We don’t like sending unbelievers on a temple tour. Would you send a hunt-saboteur to a bull-fight?’
I tried to imagine a grim Guardian-reader in an anorak and bicycle clips leaping into the bull-ring with a banner reading STOP THIS MOCKERY NOW! And failed.
‘So what kind of holiday do you envisage for me?’
‘The ideal holiday for you would be a tour of second-hand bookshops in Iceland. Unfortunately, there are no second-hand bookshops in Iceland. So instead I am sending you on a bicycling tour of the suburbs of Mexico City. You speak a little Spanish and you are deadly dull. It will suit you fine.’
And so I left the premises of FITNESS TOURS clutching an air ticket for Mexico and a bike voucher. I paused on the pavement outside. It gave the proprietor of FITNESS TOURS a chance to lean out of the window above me and shout:
‘By the way, it is not Llandridnod Wells. It is Llandrindod Wells.’
I hate to admit this, but he was right. My bicycling tour of the suburbs of Mexico City was just right for me. I immediately felt a rapport with Victor Gomez, owner of the Mexican Bike Company, who had a stall at the airport right next to Avis, Hertz and Aztec Tours.
He spoke English like a native. In fact he spoke English like a native of West Yorkshire. In fact, he came from West Yorkshire.
‘How long have you been out here?’ I asked.
‘About two weeks, senor,’ said Victor Gomez. ‘I was sent here by FITNESS TOURS. They reckoned that running a Mexican bike hire firm for two weeks would be ideally fitted to me as a holiday, and by gum, they were spot on.’
‘What are you back home?’
‘Unemployed. Now, here’s your bike. Here’s your puncture kit, here’s your recognition chart of poisonous American spiders, and here’s a number to call 24 hours a day if you are in any trouble. It’s the main cathedral in Mexico City. Oh, and by the way, we drive on the right here. We also drive on the left. We drive down the middle, too. This is only to confuse the Americans. They are easily confused. Good pedalling, amigo.’
I do not know if you know the suburbs of Mexico City, but they are quite delightful. There is Avenida de Laburnum, and Boulevard de Mafeking, and Ruta de Brondesbury Park, and there is El Jardin Centre de Brentford, and la Calle Norte Circular, and el Sistemo Giratorio de Hanger Lane, and La Elefunta y Castillo, etc etc. For a whole week I pedalled down those leafy highways, making notes for a travel book (“The Mexico that Paul Theroux never saw”) and did not even think about the beaches of the Bahamas from which I was so absent. I even came across a dormitory suburb that was twinned with Chalfont St Giles, where they were practising croquet for the annual visit. I hadn’t the heart to tell them it wasn’t done on horseback.
All good things must come to an end, but my holiday came to an end a full week before it was supposed to. I was pedalling lazily down one of the lanes in El Parque de Richmond when a car drew up besides me, four men leapt out and moments later I was abducted. They were terrorists. They were in fact, what you might call yuppy terrorists – at least they handed me their card in a very business-like way. “REVOLUTIONARY FREEDOM ARMY” it said. “Branches in all major cities. Call us night or day. No job too big for us.”
‘Why do you wish to capture me?’ I said. ‘ I am of no value to anyone.’
‘Everyone is of value to someone,’ said one of them. ‘We need money, so we will ransom you. Our leader will dictate the terms.’
Their leader, when we reached him, looked familiar. I had met him somewhere before. But where?
‘Give up?’ said the leader. ‘I run a firm in London called FITNESS TOURS.’
‘But what the hell…?’
‘This is my holiday,’ he said. ’Two weeks leading a terrorist gang. It’s my idea of heaven.’
‘It’s ridiculous,’ I said. ‘What’s the point of having a new leader every two weeks?’
‘I’ll tell you. He never gets captured because nobody knows who he is. And now to business. We will release you for a payment of £5,000.’
‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘Wait a minute. You cannot ransom me. I already owe you money - £600 for this holiday. By capturing me, you are in danger of losing money, not gaining it…’
Flickering emotions ran over his face, like instructions in a bank service till, until after some thought he nodded.
‘You are right. All right, let him go!’
‘And then shoot him?’
‘No, no, just let him go.’
They took me in the car back to where my bicycle was, and let me go. I told their spokesman that I thought I had been very lucky to get away.
‘Not at all,’ he grinned. ‘He lets everyone go. We capture them. He let them go. They all come from FITNESS TOURS.’
Suddenly I saw it all. Everyone could be fitted for the right holiday. Who knows how many people round me were on holidays that had been fitted for them. Maybe there are Mexicans working in London offices for two weeks who were actually on holiday. And that meant…
‘Does this mean that you are on a FITNESS TOUR holiday’ I asked.
‘Si, si,’ he smiled. ‘I used to go on Club Med. It was terrible. Now I am having the right vacation all the time.’
Are you fed up with your holiday? Would you like someone else to tell you what you should really be doing? Just drop me a line and I’ll pass it on to FITNESS TOURS for you.