I hate tramping. I despise puns. And as anyone who knows me will confirm, my command of the Armenian language is embarrassingly weak. So when I tell you I went tramping last Sunday with an Armenian pun-fanatic, I fear that there will be those among you who will be inclined to disbelieve me even before I have started. And that of course is your prerogative. Never mind my 20 years of honest columnising. Call me a liar and turn the page if that is how you feel. But if you bear with me, I hope I can convince you of my bona fides. The story starts, like life itself, with eggs.
At the Lyttelton Farmers' Market the egg stall is run by a family of Armenian refugees, headed by the grandfather whose first name is as long as the egg stall is wide and who is in consequence known universally by his initial, Y.
Like most Armenians, Y is forthright of manner. What he thinks he says. "Vy Joe," he exclaimed on Saturday as I bought a dozen free range lovelies, "you are getting fat." So saying he prodded me in the stomach with a firmness that made me gasp but that brought an appreciative chuckle from other shoppers. "You should come tramping vith me tomorrow."
I smiled a non-committal smile.
"But maybe you're too fat already. Maybe you cannot keep up vith an old Armenian egg-seller."
Well now, there are some taunts you can take and there are others that you can't.
"Y, my friend," I exclaimed, "if I cannot keep up with you on a tramp, I will happily pay you twice the price you ask for eggs from this day forth."
"Joe," replied Y, his old Armenian eyes lighting up, "if you can keep up vith me on a tramp, I vill give you double the eggs you pay for every veekend."
And in front of the other shoppers, we shook hands on the wager.
The tramp would take us up onto the Port Hills at Sumner, along the Summit Road and then down again at Cashmere. In deference to my ageing bladder I was allowed one toilet stop along the way, but otherwise no halting for any reason.
When Y arrived on Sumner High St in his tramping gear the following morning, my heart, I'll admit it, missed a beat. The old bugger was as scrawny as one of his broiler fowl, not an ounce of fat on him. His calves were like slugs under Gladwrap.
"Vell, vell, vell, Joe," he said, as he looked me up and down, "shall ve be off?" And without waiting for my reaction he was away.
"Vile we valk, Joe," said Y, "maybe ve amuse ourselves with little puns on your English alphabet, no?"
"Uh?." I said, partly because I didn't entirely understand, and partly because I despise puns, but mainly because I was short of breath.
"You know," continued Y, seemingly untroubled by the climb, "ve make up sentences forming part of your pretty English alphabet. Like 'a bee see me in the kitchen.' Ha ha. A bee see… you get it? ABC. It is good, no?"
I said nothing.
On the Summit Road Y doubled the pace, all the while rattling out a stream of alphabetic puns, each more contrived than the one before but all of which he greeted with his own maniacal laughter. Eventually we neared the Sign of the Kiwi after which there was only a short descent to Cashmere. But I was shot. My legs were gone. My vision was wobbling. I had nothing left. I was about to concede the wager when I remembered my right to a toilet break. There was a public lavatory at the Sign of the Kiwi. If I could only somehow contrive a few minutes rest, then I could manage the final downhill stagger.
"Y!," I panted, "toilet stop. Sign of Kiwi. Just round corner."
He scowled. He knew that if we just kept going he had me beaten, but he had no choice but to concede.
"Very vell," he said, "but no loitering. Just in and out."
Round the corner we went. I raised my head and could hardly believe my eyes and my good fortune. There was a line of people waiting to use the lavatory. I'd have several minutes of recovery time. I was saved. I looked at Y. He was staring open-mouthed. Clearly he grasped the implication of the situation. He let out a wail such as I have never heard before or since.
"Oh, pee queue! A rest to you! Ve double your eggs," Y said.
Now do you believe me?