Is he The Fly, or the rightful owner of The Spear? All our man knows for sure is he is called The Stig
'We really do not know how it got up there," said the well-groomed man in the sensible woollen pullover. "But I do suspect it has something to do with the humidity because whenever we're near the ocean, we usually find it seeking out higher ground.
"A similar incident once happened in San Francisco. I ventured out to buy it some pancake batter (a fleeting dietary phase - don't ask) and by the time I had returned, the blasted thing was already halfway up the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge."
With the man pausing to bark an order through his walkie-talkie, I snap my head up and squint at the figure in question now standing on the arch of Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium. Still. Defiant. Eerily inanimate. Some say that his patience is severely tested by the voice of Elvis Presley and that, contrary to what the newspapers would have you believe, he is the rightful owner of Brett Murray's controversial painting, The Spear. All I can tell you with any certainty is that he is called The Stig.
Usually seen blasting around the Top Gear test track at high speed, this enigmatic racing driver has today been let out of his cage to interact with us ragtag journalists. Apparently, as the man in the sensible woollen pullover proceeds to elaborate, he had also just agreed to scare the bejesus out of us with an elaborate plan involving a black BMW M3 and a makeshift skidpan set up in a nearby car park.
"And then he bloody well upped and bolted! Seriously, we've been trying to coax him down for the last hour but he simply won't budge. The promise of a thousand bunny chows, the keys to this Aston MartinV8 Vantage, even the spirited humming of Beethoven's 9th Symphony - nothing seems to be working. You aren't strapped for time, I hope?"
I explain that I am and that if this situation isn't resolved quickly I might be forced to instead pen a feature on Jason Plato, Tiff Needell or Rubens Barrichello. But then, and all of a sudden I might add, something strange happens. Obviously entranced by the sight of Gareth Cliff arriving on the scene in a pair of skinny blue jeans and a shiny black Armani sports jacket, The Stig unfolds his arms and starts walking towards the sky lift situated on the far side of the stadium's arch. Slowly at first but then growing more and more purposeful with each lengthy stride. An odd sense of unease filters through the crowd as Stig enters the car and begins his slow trek back down to earth.
Moments later, in a scene that would not be out of place in David Cronenberg's 1986 sci-fi horror epic The Fly, the lift doors open and the man in the white suit walks towards us. Fully aware of his strange and irrational fear of sunglasses, Cliff slides on a pair of black Ray-Ban Wayfarers and The Stig stops dead in his tracks. The man in the sensible woollen pullover signals to a woman, whose name now escapes me, and they both start moving in, slowly, with a pair of diamanté handcuffs and a very large cattle prod that had obviously been concealed in somebody else's trousers.
The LCD display of my Casio watch reads 11:11am. An orange freight train glides past the perimeter fence but makes no noise. A pigeon falls from a nearby lamppost, its body lying limp and lifeless. But before anybody can comment on Durban's unusually balmy weather, The Stig leaps into the air and commandeers the Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Seconds later he's accelerating sideways with a dark cloud of expensive tyre smoke curling in his wake. Out in the distance somebody screams.
"This thing is impossible," sighs the woman whose name I cannot remember. "The last two Stigs (Perry and Collins) were manageable at the best of times. But this one, well, let's just say it would be far easier chaperoning a chimp with a speed addiction."
I ask her how Top Gear stands it, why they punish themselves by putting up with the Houdini-like antics. Without blinking she fires back: "Because he is the best we have ever had. You will see when you get to drive with him, everything will make sense."
And she is right, it does. After I hand over a tray of vetkoek and an old railway sleeper (which he messily devours), The Stig finally agrees to take me out in the black BMW M3. He will not shake my hand. He does not speak. In fact I doubt whether or not he really acknowledges my existence as I hurriedly buckle into the passenger seat.
"Whatever you do, do not yell," warns a medic. "It will make him do particularly hideous things."
I don't and the next 180 seconds play out like one of those super-HD slow-motion replays you see on the sports channel. Maybe he's mastered the art of stasis, perhaps it has something to do with the pie I just ate, but time itself seems to be throttled. And obviously this is why Top Gear's helmeted enigma displays such incredible levels of car control. For whereas we mere mortals have to analyse every move in frightening real time, the entity in the race suit has this ability to stretch nanoseconds into minutes.
Some say that he's capable of bending the space-time continuum and if he were to strip naked in front of a video camera, Dirk Diggler himself would break down from embarrassment. Like I said, all I know is that he is called The Stig. Oh, and that he can thrash a BMW around a skidpan better than Alonso, Button and Vettel combined.
- See his Stigness in action at the Top Gear Festival, Durban, June 16 and 17.