Ask anyone in the street how they feel about carrots and you're bound to get any number of different answers, from a phlegmatic shrug of the shoulders to a more than emphatic belt in the mouth. Ask them what they think about the possibility of carrots being able to fly and their answers would undoubtedly be of similar accord - they'd think you were some kind of nut. Furthermore, they'd have no qualms about telling you that they thought you were some kind of nut. They'd probably tell everyone that you're a nut, then high-tail it to the local cop emporium to warn them of a dangerous nutter at large with a vegetable fixation.
However, strange as it may seem, the prospect of a high altitude carrot cruising through the stratosphere is not as far removed as it may at first appear. In fact, to those of us who were briefly but inextricably bound up in the hitherto top secret 'Project Orange' it was a tantalising possibility that we lived with every day.
I was first contacted in the autumn of '87, during my final year at Oxford, or possibly Cambridge. Life was hectic, and I often found it difficult to recall which university I attended. I'm pretty sure it wasn't Aberdeen. Anyway, one day a gentleman, whose name I was never made aware of, came to visit me at my rooms. I remember him being quite tall and he seemed remarkably pale, although it was difficult to tell for certain as he favoured standing in shadow. He was accompanied by an even taller man who remained just outside the door, and whose face I never saw as it was way above my eye-level. The man - the first one, the one who spoke - seemed to know a disturbing amount of personal information about me. Some of it was so personal that I didn't even know it myself. For instance, he told me that on Wednesdays I was in the habit of stopping for lunch at a small sandwich shop adjacent to the town hall - which proved, upon further investigation, to be quite correct. He also told me that my favourite sandwich was mustard and cress. I have never, to my knowledge, ever bought a mustard and cress sandwich, but it does go some way towards explaining why the ham and tomato that I usually favour normally makes me sick.
Clearly, he dropped these little titbits of information into our smalltalk to demonstrate his advantage over me. But as our discourse progressed it became obvious that he was rather more interested in the research I had done over the course of my degree. He made particular mention of a thesis I had written concerning the tensile properties of vegetable matter at extreme temperatures. He told me that it had raised a few eyebrows in certain quarters, as well as ruffling a few feathers and knocking a few knees. The 'certain quarters' to which he referred appeared to be some manner of organisation for which he worked. I was intrigued at these strange befeathered, knocked-kneed people with misplaced eyebrows, and wondered how they knew so much about my choice in sandwiches, but he would not explain further. He simply said that they could use people like me, then turned to go, leaving his card on the occasional table before he left. There was nothing on it.
Several days later I received a mysterious phone call. This was most unnerving as I didn't have a phone. A voice on the other end said that they had a proposition for me, and that if I was interested in learning something to my advantage, I should attend a rendezvous the following evening. Curiosity got the better of me, and so at 7pm the next day I found myself standing outside the Odeon cinema in Totnes. It was a warm and muggy night, I seem to recall. I waited and watched as the occasional drunken tourist ambled past me, scattering a trail of discarded chips in his wake. There was almost always some downtrodden tramp moving in the opposite direction, trying to trace the trail to its source.
Eventually a shadowy figure hissed at me from around a corner. He was tall - even taller than the previous two I had seen - and he was also much, much paler, although it was difficult to be sure as it was also much, much darker.
"We can't talk here," he whispered at me in a voice like crushed glass, and then nodded at the cinema. "In there."
We went in to see Back to the Future III - he bought the tickets, I paid for the popcorn. I thought the film was quite disappointing, but he seemed to like it. Afterwards, we went across to the pub over the road and had a couple of pints and a game of pool. Then, feeling peckish, we rounded off the night with a kebab. It was quite a pleasant evening and certainly made a change from staying in and watching the TV.
As we parted he told me to report to an abandoned airbase in Norfolk at eight o'clock the next morning. And so, after a night of fitful dreaming, I arrived bright and early to find the place deserted. I waited for about twenty minutes, then a car arrived to take me to an airbase down the road that was slightly less abandoned. Here I was shown into a battered corrugated iron hangar, where I was greeted by a battered, corrugated iron flight lieutenant. I was asked to change into a sterilised overall, and a man came and took away my underpants for analysis. I never saw them again. I was then led through a plastic strip curtain to what appeared to be some kind of lecture room. On the right were a series of displays presenting artists' impressions of various vegetables in flight; on the left was a monkey strapped to an ejector seat, but I tried not to catch his eye.
The room was already full of people from all walks of life. There was a scattering of military personnel, several crusty academic types, some brawny engineers, electricians, drivers, frogmen, farm labourers, a juggler, several clowns and a man called Barry who cleaned out fish ponds for a living. I found an empty seat amongst the creaking ranks of plastic chairs that were linked together like prisoners in a chain gang, and to my surprise I found myself next to Mr Prebble, my old music teacher from school. I knew it was him, because I recognised his bassoon. However, before I had time to ask him what this was all about - before I even had the opportunity to tell him to take his hand off my knee - we were hushed into silence by a short, fat man in a tall lab coat, decorated with an eclectic collection of stains. I couldn't help but notice that he had a slab of Dundee cake protruding from his breast pocket, and if there was ever any significance to this, I was never made aware of it.
Just to make doubly certain that he had our attention, the lab-coated man slapped his clipboard down on the table in front him, cleared his throat, then announced to us all that his name was Dr Gadbach Fatback, and that no one was to laugh. He then asked if anyone had ever seen a vegetable fly. I got the impression that the question was meant to be rhetorical, but one of our number stood up and attested that he had once witnessed a cucumber levitating above the fresh produce section in Sainsbury's. Two men arrived, took him firmly by the elbows, then - with a minimum of fuss - escorted him outside and beat him to a pulp.
The lights were then dimmed and we were shown a short film. We saw some grainy, out of focus footage of a parsnip being placed on a stand. After a few seconds a strange haze seemed to surround it and it very slightly began to twitch and shiver. Then, quite unexpectedly, it lifted about six inches into the air - it may have gone further, had it not been tethered. It stayed there for about fifteen or twenty seconds, there was a sudden flash, and the film ended suddenly.
Dr Fatback explained that this experiment had taken place in Russia almost forty years ago, and that since that time their research had come along in leaps and bounds. Our agents in Moscow had learned that the Ruskies were already in possession of a squadron of low level marrows that were invisible to radar. Furthermore, they were up to something pretty daring with broccoli florets, and were on the verge of putting a potato into geo-stationary orbit.
Meanwhile, our own efforts have been pitifully inept. Despite spending billions on a radical new propulsion system for cauliflowers, the RAF had thus far been unable to get any of them off the ground. Nevertheless, they did record some success in 1981 when they managed to get a sprout up to three hundred feet after suspending it from a duck - but work on this project was terminated when the duck got stroppy. It was clear, Dr Fatback said, that if this initiative was ever going to bear fruit, they would need civilian help.
And that's where we came in - experts drawn from every field you could imagine, as well as one or two that you couldn't (and at least one that you could imagine perfectly well, but really wouldn't want to). It was an exciting time. If we were successful, we would be writing a whole new chapter in the book of aviation history; if not, we would be nothing more than an embarrassing footnote in a slim pamphlet about market gardening. It was a challenge that was too good to refuse, and so it came to pass that I began work on a project that would change my life forever...
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