An individual freeing himself from wrongful incarceration is a noble enterprise – the stuff, indeed, that edge-of-seat plots are woven from. So it’s no wonder so many gems in the fictional canon chart an escapee’s twisting fortunes. Who does not cheer from the narrative’s touchline when Henri Charrière, aka Papillon, flees through the jungles of French Guiana for four days, with only chewed coca leaves as sustenance?
Who does not favour the fugitive when that fugitive is Victor Hugo’s most famous protagonist: Jean Valjean who, having hurled himself into the sea after rescuing a sailor caught in his prison hulk’s rigging, exploits his presumed death to escape and live a life of virtue – thus fulfilling a promise made to the kindly clergyman who took him in and fed him years previously? What kind of stone-hearted monster, witnessing the cat-and-mouse tussle between Dr Richard Kimble and Police Lieutenant Philip Gerard in cult 60s series The Fugitive, does not root for the mouse: an embattled physician wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife?
My own story of capture and attempted escape, I like to think, will stand amongst these gripping tales of heroism in the face of having a basic human/ursine right – freedom – cruelly purloined. The torrid tale begins, ironically enough, in the salubrious halls of Messe Basel during Baselworld 2018, where I was operating as a brand ambassador (the word ‘mascot’, I feel, is better suited to Baxter the Arizona Diamondbacks Bobcat or Chirpy the Tottenham Hotspur Cockerel).
As another day greeting visitors at the Oris booth came to a close, I had a spring in my step: for that evening I was to be guest of honour at the Swiss brand’s evening soiree – a congenial affair at which, by 10pm on this occasion, my limbs ached from my dance-floor exuberance, while a chaotically choreographed phosphene scene played out before me every time I shut my eyes, thanks to the hundreds of camera flashes that had zapped into my Champagne-dilated pupils all evening.
The latter stages of the night, I confess, are hazy: one rarely gets beyond the last third-measure of fizz at these events before a waiter promptly refills one’s glass, and some of the more boisterous attendees were mixing premium vodka with those ghastly energy drinks (imagine how toxic levels of taurine smell to a creature with 10 times the sense of smell of a human). We were well into the early hours when a well-oiled, and I thought well-meaning, trio of revellers noticed my mudded demeanour and, between nuggets of innocuous banter, ushered me towards the exit.
Outside, the cold gusts hit me, and nausea soon had me leaning against a wall –– and it was then that I heard the sounds of human voices engaged in barter trade. I was three hiccups away from emptying my entire stuffed innards onto the pavement, when I looked up, squinted through the night and saw an inebriated couple, sat atop bicycles, stuffing a couple of 20-franc notes into the sticky palm of one of the vagabonds. I was hostage to a new party.
I soon found myself in the back of a white uber van, convinced I’d spend the next two decades chained to a radiator while balaclava’d men screamed their demands into an encrypted 2G Nokia. Were they Quartz revolutionaries, rueing the continued success of mechanical timepieces? Henchmen hired by some plastics industry big-wig resenting Oris’s water conservation efforts? Simply some crazed, agrizoophobic mercenaries? I’d read somewhere that the relatives of highly-paid South American footballers plying their lucrative trade in Europe are targets for kidnapping – were my kindly employers at Oris about to get a stoutly worded ransom note?
Hallucinating muddled variations on these ghastly scenarios, and in rare moments of lucidity rehearsing my speech upon being released (it’d contain at least one reference to “the right to arm bears”), I eventually blacked out and only came to hours later to find myself in an apartment in downtown Basel: sans blindfold, my paws unshackled, simply propped into the corner of a living room.
Having made a light-footed escape, I spent what remained of the night pacing the banks of the Rhine, clasping my jacket around me – thank God for the human propensity for anthropomorphism – gradually coming to terms with the reality with which I was confronted. I was on the run from my captors, but would – if apprehended – surely be deemed to be on the run from my beloved employers, too. Oh, the curse of being mentally cognitive but deprived the power of speech! My only hope, I realised, was to return to my domestic jail and hope that my detainers would see sense in the sober light of day.
Returning to the apartment, I struggled up the stairs and collapsed, forehead against front door, submitting myself to whatever fate awaited. The next thing I saw, blinking upwards in the glare of daylight, was the famous doughnut ring of Messe Basel. I was convinced I was hallucinating until I heard the familiar voices of two female colleagues, who had spotted my assailants trying to smuggle me back in to Baselworld and the Oris booth. The torrent of relief was overpowering.
I remain miffed with my vodka-pickled captors – not least for their audacity in claiming a reward (they received nothing more, I was pleased to witness, than a hollow laugh and a small bottle of Oris gin to alleviate their hangovers) – but am touched by the sheer kindness shown to me since the ordeal – both by my colleagues and by fans of the brand (during my absence, I subsequently discovered, the area surrounding the Oris booth was beseeched with plaintive cries of “Any news?”).
My currency has now soared. At an evening event at the Vegas Couture show, some months later, despite the security measures being rigorous – my insurance premiums have gone through the roof – it took a physical intervention from no less than our CEO Rolf Studer, close to a fire exit, to prevent me being bear-knapped once again.
It was Mr Studer, indeed, who showed the most empathy straight after that beleaguered night. “We can only imagine how he must have felt inside after the kidnapping – he wasn’t saying much – but we noticed how he was still smiling,” he remarked after the incident. “We felt so sorry for the horrific experience that poor bear went through. The scars are still there – it’s a metaphor for many, many things in life.”
A metaphor and, surely, a movie script waiting to be written.