It was Happy Hour at Harry’s Cocktail Bar the first time that I met Lola.  I had my nose in the Corriera della Sera, so I didn’t see Lola come in.  I was reading about how Luigi Mignoni, CEO of WineCorp, was facing charges of “impropriety”  with his much younger secretary in a cellar full of the corporation’s one hundred-year-old Chianti, not that this bothered WineCorp – men of a certain age had rushed out and bought bottles of the stuff, hoping that it would cause a little of Mignoni’s virility and sex appeal to rub off on them.  In fact, not all of the wine that was flying off the shelves was a hundred years old, and some of it wasn’t even Chianti.  Then I heard this clack clack, so I looked up from the Corriera della Sera and there was Lola.

  Lola was wearing a World War Two Russian tank driver’s helmet, aviator’s goggles, a flying jacket, and rainbow-coloured high-heel sneakers.  It was love at first sight.  Oh, and bright red lippy.

  “I’m looking for a balloonatic,” Lola said to no-one in particular.

  “Aren’t we all?” I replied.

  “You’ve come to the right place,” Harry piped-up from behind the bar.

  “Care for a drink?” Lola asked me.

  I nodded.

  “We’ll have a Teatime Special,” Lola called to Harry without asking if it was ok with me.

  As it happens it was ok with me.  Iced Earl Grey with vodka poured from a teapot into a glass with a slice of lime, the Teatime Special gave off a bewitching aroma of bergamot, citrus and alcohol – or perhaps that was Lola’s perfume.

   I was halfway down my first glass when Lola asked me if I was scared of heights.

  I told her that I was terrified.

  “You should be,” Lola replied.  “They can kill.”

  I said that I thought that it was the landing that could kill.

  “That can be dangerous, too,” Lola agreed.  “The point is it doesn’t do to get too complacent when you’re five hundred metres above the Earth and the only thing keeping you there is a bag of hot air.”

  I said that if I were five hundred metres above the Earth, complacent is the last thing that I would be.  But why would I be up there in the first place?

  “Because,” Lola answered, “it could either make you rich and famous or make you dead.”

  I told Lola that I would settle for rich and famous, but how could I make it happen?

  “Have you ever heard of Roberto Bardalini?” Lola asked.

  Of course I’d heard of Italy’s Number One Formula One racing driver.  Who hadn’t?

  “I’ve made a bet with him,” Lola continued.  “I bet him I can take ten kilos of spaghetti from Milan to Rome in a hot air balloon faster than he can do the same in his F1 car so that Marco Sparelli – you’ve heard of him?”

  Of course I’d heard of Marco Sparelli, Italy’s number one tv chef.  Who hadn’t?

  “So that Marco Sparelli,” Lola continued, “can cook it as part of a meal for a thousand people in St. Peter’s Square.”

  “You’ll lose,” I said without hesitation.

  “You’d think so,” Lola agreed, “but think about it.  How much spaghetti can you get into an F1 car?”

  I admitted it was something I’d never thought about.

  “If you fill every available nook and cranny, and there aren’t many – there’s barely room for the driver -, I reckon you could stuff about five kilos in.”

  “So he’d have to make two journeys,” I said, pleased with the speed and      accuracy of my calculation.

  “Bingo!” said Lola.  “Now finish your drink and let’s get going.”

  “What’s the hurry?” I asked.

  “The hurry,” Lola replied, “is that we’ve got to be in Rome the day after tomorrow.”


  I could tell you about the accident that we had over the Apennines or the near-miss with the light aircraft or the strange creature that we saw swimming in Lake Trasimene, but that isn’t what this story’s about.  It’s about who won the bet.  In short, it wasn’t us, which is why I’m not rich and famous as Lola said I might be.  But I’m not dead either, so I’m not complaining.


  The diners in St. Peter’s were already on to their tiramisu when we touched-down beside Bardalini’s bright red MacLaren with him standing at the side of it having a grappa with Sparelli.  Either he’d managed to cram more spaghetti into his car than Lola had anticipated or he’d broken every speed limit between Milan and Rome – twice.  Or perhaps we just hadn’t been fast enough.  We got a sympathetic round of applause, but you know what they say – in a two-horse race there’s no second place.


  That evening, sitting outside a bar in Trastevere, I was overcome with emotion, and whether it was the scent of pine on the breeze or the way the moon glinted on Lola’s goggles I don’t know, but I did something I’ve never done before or since – I proposed.  Marriage, that is.

  Lola thought about my proposal for a moment, then said, “You do know I’m a man?”

  “Of course I do,” I replied.  “That’s what attracted me to you.  We’ve got so much in common.”

  Lola.  L.O.L.A.  Lola.