Thursday, 25 April 2019

THE TRUE-LIFE TALE OF BILLY LIAR...


Me in St. Andrew's Road in Southsea, Portsmouth, 1978

Reading about a tall tale-telling cartoon character reminded me of a real-life inveterate 'fantasist' (by which I mean liar) who used to pal about with me from 1965 until he joined the Navy shortly after his dad died in 1977.  We remained friends until 1981, when I concluded that he obviously had mental health issues and finally severed all ties with him.

I last saw him in Gosport near the end of April '81 when I was living nearby, and it was then I realized he was no longer the person I thought he was - if indeed he ever had been.  This man simply couldn't open his gob without a monumental, unbelievable 'porky-pie' popping out.  For example, even before he joined the Navy he used to wear an over-sized diver's watch, and when a friend (RONNIE ROSS, now sadly deceased) asked him what it was, he replied that it was an atomic power-pack for his bionic arm. (This was around '76/'77, when the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN was still on TV.)

Had it been an 'off-the-cuff' remark intended as a joke, that would've been fine. However, in between starting and finishing the sentence, he'd somehow managed to convince himself it was true and fully expected to be believed.  Another example (on a flying visit to our house in December of 1980) came when my father asked him if he had any kids yet.  (He'd got wed in Portsmouth Registry Office two years before, and I'd been best man.)  "No," he said, "I caught an infection from a toilet seat and they had to cut my tubes.  They operated through my back passage so as not to leave a scar."

To the best of my knowledge, those 'in-the-know' say that infections can't be caught from toilet seats (at least, not the kind which affect internal organs) so his claim couldn't be true.  However, why the bit about back-door surgery?  It's unlikely that anyone would ask to see his scar so why say that if it wasn't true? Then I realized - as a Navy man, he shared showers and quarters with others, so he'd need a 'cover-story' to explain his obvious scar-free condition when he first told his bizarre tale.  A normal person would simply have said that he didn't want kids until he left the Navy, not produced a fantastic fable that defied accepted medical facts.  Not so 'BILLY LIAR'.

His lying was no recent development, but stretched all the way back to childhood, as this 1966/'67 account illustrates.  One morning in the school playground, myself, 'Billy Liar' and a fellow called ROBERT (or ROBIN) GOLDIE were standing in line, waiting for the bell to ring to gain access to the building.  Robert was holding an ACTION MAN and opened the jacket to show us AM's dog-tag. Action Man (or GI JOE to U.S. readers) had a rather 'stylised' musculature with a bit of a gap between his pecs.  My brother owned a TOMMY GUNN action-figure with a more realistic physique, so I remarked on how odd Action Man's torso was by comparison.  "That was his sister who did that - she's got really sharp nails!" volunteered 'Billy', ignoring the fact that Robert's sister would've had to be SUPERGIRL to make a dent in such hard plastic.

Regular readers may recall a previous post in which I mentioned a pupil who came into school one morning with a tracing of RUMPELSTILTSKIN (from a class reading book) on a piece of IZAL toilet paper, claiming he'd drawn it the night before.   (Though when the sheet was placed over the book illustration and the fraud exposed, he then said it was the work of his sister.)  Yes, you've guessed it - it was the very same guy.

For almost as long as I'd known him he'd been plagued by cartilage problems in one of his knees.  This meant that not long after joining the Navy it was discovered that he wasn't fit for active duty.  So he was given a choice - either leave the Navy or take up a 'landlubber' position at Haslar Hospital in Gosport.  (He invented a tale which attributed his long-term problem to getting his knee caught between two practice mines while on a training exercise.)  According to him his new job was that of 'medical assistant' (nurse), but in all likelihood he was a hospital porter.  Not for long though, as two or three years later he was back in civvy-street.

In 1981 I'd returned to Portsmouth - at his invitation - only to find that he steered clear of me and never came to visit - apart from one time when I saw him on his moped coming from the direction of my bed-sit while I was returning from the shops.  I hailed him, but he stopped for only just long enough to tell me he'd no time to talk - then he was off again.  He was only about two minutes away from my place and two minutes away from his base (by bike), so I wondered why he'd gone out of his way if he'd no intention of stopping.  When I got back, my landlady revealed to me that he'd only been checking-up to see if I'd returned to Scotland yet.

Me in my room in Boulton Road, Southsea in 1981.
Yes, I know - it looks like a Crimewatch photo

Obviously he was worried that the longer I was around, the greater the chance I'd eventually meet some of his newer friends and perhaps inadvertently blow the gaff about some of the 'tall tales' he'd spun.  After all, this was a guy who, with crash helmet tucked under his arm, used to visit bars that bikers hung out in - even before he had a motorbike.  (No joking.)  

Months later, when I finally returned home, my father told me that while I was in Portsmouth, 'Billy' had 'phoned one night with a curious request.  "Mr. Robson, I was in a bar the other night having a drink, and I told a guy I was talking to that I'm a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Navy."  (This was when he was a porter in Gosport's Haslar Hospital.)  "He didn't believe me, so I gave him your number and told him to 'phone you and you'd confirm it.  If he does call, could you back me up?"  Naturally, my father told him not to be so daft.  "Go on - a favour for a favour," pleaded the deluded 'Billy'.  My father enquired what he meant.  "I visited Gordon the other day and it cost me money for petrol for my bike," quoth Mr. Mental, referring to his lightning-quick dash to check if I was still around.  When I heard this, I gave my parents strict instructions that, if 'Billy' ever 'phoned, I was out - even if I was in.

About six or seven years later, the 'phone (then in the hallway) rang and the answer-machine clicked on.  As I stood at the top of the stairs to hear who it was, an unfamiliar voice emanated from the speaker - a Detective Inspector someone (couldn't make out the name) wanting to talk to me.  I went downstairs and picked up the 'phone - "Hello?" I said.  "What's the matter, don't you recognize an old friend?"  The voice had changed, being that strange hybrid accent that many 'Jocks' acquire from spending years down south, so at first I didn't recognize it.  Then the penny dropped and I hung up without replying.  The 'phone rang again and his voice from the speaker said:  "I'll use my warrant card if that's what it takes to talk to you!"  Poor, deluded fool.  He was never in the police - I checked, even though it was a racing cert that he wasn't.

It seems that leopards can't change their spots.  Egged on by a pal who'd also known 'Billy' we both looked at his Facebook page about a year ago.  According to him he's a Falklands war veteran who was fast-tracked through the ranks of the Royal Navy, is thinking of taking a course in astro-physics (or something equally far-fetched), was taught to cook by both GORDON RAMSAY and JAMIE OLIVER (or two other equally famous TV chefs), has hacked into NASA satellites to take photographs of outer space (with a clearly-cribbed pic from the Internet), had a successful career as a world-class photographer (although his webpage is conspicuously absent of any evidence which would indicate it), and is a personal buddy of BILLY CONNOLLY and folk-singer RALPH McTELL, who he claims to have known since the age of twelve.  Oh, and he learned to scuba-dive at the age of nine.  (Which was all news to me - and I'd known him from when he was six.)

Right, altogether now - "JACKANORY, JACKANORYJACKANORY".  Needless to say, we both fell about laughing at this catalogue of absurdity. Unfortunately though, there was a sad side to his inabiltiy to grasp reality, and let me wind up this overlong reminiscence by revealing what that was.

As I previously said, I was best man at this fantasy merchant's wedding in 1978, but I had gone down to Portsmouth a few days in advance of the 'big day'.  The morning before the ceremony, while he was out somewhere, his fiancee broke down in tears and confessed to me that she was now having severe doubts about going through with it.  Her brother and her friends considered him a complete weirdo and had expressed concern over his alarming propensity to tell the most outrageous lies at the drop of a hat.  What was I to do?  What I should've done was tell her that I didn't think he was mature enough to get married and had been telling porkies for as long as I had known him so was therefore unlikely to change.

However, I was faced with a dilemma.  If she called off the wedding as a result of anything I said, I'd then be the bad guy.  I knew that he'd continue to pursue her and woo her after I'd gone home, and probably persuade her (against her better judgement) into marrying him, and I'd then be excluded from the celebrations and most likely be a pal short as a result.  So I chickened out, telling her that I'd have a very serious talk with him and explain that all his lies had to stop; that he was about to embark on a wonderful new chapter in his life which he should take extremely seriously and stop embarrassing both himself and his beloved with his absurd fabrications and fantasies.  So I did - at great length and in excruciating detail (as is my wont).  At the conclusion of my sonorous oration he soberly assured me that he was 'indeed an altered Toad'.

He was lying of course.

On the day of the wedding, when the registrar asked her if she took this man as her lawful wedded husband, there was a long, long pause.  Then, with tears streaming down her face, she hesitantly said "I do" and thereby made one of the worst decisions of her life.  A decision that I could probably have prevented - and to this day am filled with regret that I didn't at least try to.  The marriage lasted a couple of years or so and the poor woman went through hell.  I hope she's happy now and, should she ever get to read this, can forgive me for my inaction.  I last saw her around August or September 1980 when they were both up on a brief visit.

So there you have it.  Trust me, the cartoon character I alluded to at the start of this post is nowhere near as bad as the guy I've just been telling you about.  He's certainly a lot funnier though.

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