Fly Time

We have travelled back to Lisbon so that Arthur can sit his 11+ grammar school exam. He is supposed to be taking it back in London, but we have pleaded with the board to allow us to sit the exam in Portugal so we don’t have to face UK quarantine. They eventually conceded that these are indeed exceptional circumstances and so we have found an English institute right by the casino in Estoril where, for a small fee, they have agreed to invigilate him.

We stay in a quirky guesthouse where the décor is an interesting Eastern-whimsical-meets-gritty-boxer mash-up. It is called Lucky’s Guesthouse after the famous Lucky’s boxing gym and it is run by an weatherbeaten pair who are eccentric and charming. Francisco checks us in, talks nonstop, shows us many photos on his phone and rustles up duck for dinner, while Rosa is clearly the artistic one, that is to say she floats around in a beret, smoking, drinking and chatting to elderly acquaintances who keep popping up. I do lots of empathetic bonding with Francisco – as one hardworking henpecked male to another – but my backslaps and mock punches leave him confused.

Among the windchimes and stone buddhas in the garden is a glass conservatory which has been equipped with mats, a ring, gloves and punchbags. I try to get Arthur into a jujitsu class the night before his exam, to use up some of that testosterone and adrenaline, but he is nervous and tense and he balks at the at the last moment, goes all panicked and wild-eyed and refuses to enter the dojo. Instead we play Monopoly and everyone goes to bed early.

Arthur sits his exam and it is not the ordeal that he has feared. We are probably more nervous than he is on the morning. We have a secret treat lined up for afterwards which requires a bit of cover story.
“As a reward Artie, let’s drive into Lisbon and go shopping. You could use some new pants right?”
“Grunt.” Eye-roll. “Can I play on my Kindle while we drive in?”
“Of course you can buddy. You’ve deserved it.”
“No maths apps? No spelling tests?”
“Not a single one.”

We skirt right around Lisbon but the kids don’t notice this, and we stop in a very grimy satellite town for lunch. Menna and I can’t find anywhere that we dare eat in, so we break a long-standing rule and go to McDonalds. The kids are so elated that this may as well be the special treat in itself. Back in the car, lethargic with nuggets and milkshakes, they plug themselves straight back into their Kindles.  They don’t even notice when we pull up in an empty stretch of wasteland by the motorway, rather than the shopping centre they are expecting.  Surprise!

There on the scrubland, waiting for us, is a strange contraption, something like a dune buggy with a huge propeller on the back and a parachute stretched out behind it. Arthur isn’t yet old enough for the sky-dive I tried to book but I have found this compromise instead. We are going power-paragliding.

We introduce ourselves to our pilot, Eduardo, a taciturn man of the skies. His English is poor but his ultralight-aviation credentials are written across his craggy suntanned face. I throw various pleasantries at him but his washed-out blue eyes are away somewhere in the distance, scanning the horizon, reading cloud movements. Eduardo is a gyrocopter giant, I tell the kids, a maestro of microlights, the professor of paragliding. We are in safe hands.

As guest of honour, Art goes first. Eduardo in the air has a playful side which was somewhat absent on the earth. He climbs up and immediately puts the craft into a screaming descent, throws Arthur around in some pretty extreme loops before cruising off for a twenty minute tour of the local countryside. Once they’re back on terra firma, Arthur staggers out grinning and shaking. Matilda is up next, huge worried eyes staring helplessly out of her aviator helmet as she is strapped tightly in. The pilot promises to not do any scary tricks, but he can’t resist one low swooping buzz right past our heads so we have to duck. I can see Matilda’s little hands gripping on for dear life.

It is my turn last of all, and although I’ve now seen Eduardo’s routine three times and I’m mentally prepared for his antics, I am still caught out by how visceral the whole experience is. Take-off is a whine of propeller, a sudden bumpy lurch, a hop, a heavy bounce and then we’re swinging up like a pendulum beneath a canopy. We climb up thirty metres or so then immediately bank hard and swing around in three near vertical loops. The G-force is intense, my heavy helmeted head is pinned back on the headrest and I feel my slack cheeks wobble. My stomach rises and wonder if I am going to spray Eduardo with Big Mac. It passes and I am able to enjoy the long diving run that we embark on next, watching the ground rush up at us with a strange sense of detachment. Over the next few minutes Eduardo pushes his craft to the limits and it is terrifying and exciting. I am shouting out all sorts of rubbish.
“Wow! Crazy G-force man! Awesome. Vector nine-zero. Bogeys ahead!”

Then we are cruising. The drone of the motor is a low constant that fades into the background. The fields and towns are far below and the hills around Lisbon are lit up in the afternoon sun. Far away there is a castle on a hilltop and Eduardo plots a direct line for it. There is a moment when I suddenly have a cold reality check – I’m floating 100m above the ground in a go-kart strapped to a kite – but this soon passes. I flip up the visor, the wind stings my eyes and makes me cry a little but it feels good.

“Request fly-by!” I shout at Eduardo when we circle the castle, “Buzz the tower!” but I get no answer. I guess he never watched Top Gun. Actually, who am I kidding? Eduardo probably did the Portuguese voice-over.

Soon we are back on the ground and I step out of the machine, tuck my flying helmet under one arm and slip my sunglasses on. Mission complete. The aviator has landed. Arthur and Menna come running up across the turf, shouting. It is the hero’s welcome I deserve.

But no. While I was off flying dangerous missions, Arthur has found a shard of porcelain in a rubbish heap nearby that he has chipped into a dagger shape, then in some angry snatching game with Matilda, he has managed to slice his finger right to the bone. He is weeping and spurting blood everywhere, Menna is chasing him around with antiseptic wipes, Matilda has run off in shame and hidden.

“Mustang, this is Voodoo 3.” I say, “The remaining MiGs are bugging out.” It makes no real sense but it feels right. Then we patch Arthur up and go and find a steak restaurant for dinner.