When I was young my parents would take us on holiday to Europe. This was relatively rare then. Flights were expensive, so we drove in my father’s elderly Daimler. Only once did we fly and that was an impossibly romantic stagger across the Channel with the Daimler in a Bristol Freighter, from Lydd Airport to Le Touquet, a service also employed by James Bond in Goldfinger, with, if memory serves, his 1930s Bentley. Lydd Airport is now called London Ashford Airport, because it is not located anywhere near London or Ashford, and it is no longer impossibly romantic.
We drove south and saw things that our school friends didn’t. We saw Naples when it was still controlled by deep-died ruffians, as opposed to Berlusconi-like smoothies. Indeed they broke into the Daimler as we were having a picnic and stole our passports. My identity was later used by a quite important assassin.
The only problem was the sun and the sea. My parents were sure that both were good for us. The sun burnt my pale post-War flesh. There was no such thing then as Factor 50, only some dubious and runny cream that you got from Boots. My parents were convinced that you couldn’t get burnt after three in the afternoon, and the sea into which they drove us washed even the dubious cream from Boots away. It was pure agony the first day. You knew that the second day it would mutate into a fierce itching, worst on that bit of the back that you couldn’t quite reach to scratch, and on the third the skin would come away in sheets; but this was usually academic as the second and third days were always renewed bouts of the first.
When I left home I resolved that whilst Abroad would still have its place in my life I would never again go on a beach or in the sea. I kept to this resolve until quite recently.
The better half prodded me into returning. On a visit to Amelia Island in Florida (as it happens) she was able to demonstrate that Factor 50 actually worked. I rolled up one trouser leg (rather like my Uncle Edgerton through with very different motivation) and she applied the lotion to my knee. I walked in a gingerly fashion up the beach for ten minutes and then back and was astonished to discover that, afterwards, nothing hurt.
The sea came next. First it was at night, and I still do like the reflections of the town lights in the waves as they break over me. Then I tried it in the daytime too.
Of course there was a setback. We were in Oman and staying at the Chedi. This is one of the most elegant hotels in the world and our friend Rob, who then lived in Oman, had persuaded someone to let us have rooms at an absurdly cheap rate, so cheap that the bill passed muster when eventually presented as an expense to my then law firm. Anyway, at the Chedi you felt immune from all danger, and that was where I went wrong. I let down my guard.
I wandered into the Indian Ocean. It was the temperature of momentarily neglected soup, which is how I like it. The water lapped about my thighs. Suddenly there was a fierce current and I was pulled under. I couldn’t locate the sea bed or the surface. I breathed in water.
His Highness Sultan Qaboos appeared to me. He was hovering there, shimmering, neither in the water nor out of it. He was fingering his khanja just the way he does.
Have strength, my boy, he said – or at any rate appeared to say.
Bugger me, a vision, I said to myself. Things are worse than I thought.
And with a last superhuman effort I broke surface and found myself once again knee deep in the benign and sultry waters that abut the Chedi’s private beach.
No one had any sympathy at all, but after that I steered clear of the sea again.
Rob, confusingly, now lives in Portugal. If he were fictional like Uncle Edgerton he would stay put but he isn’t and he doesn’t. Last week we stayed with him there – with him and his excellent terrier Joca, who kills snakes.
It was outrageously hot. The first day I accompanied Rob and the better half to the beach and got burnt in spite of Factor 50. They both discouraged me, as if I needed it, from swimming. The breakers came in from the Atlantic, they said and were big and cold.
For a couple of days when the others went to the beach I stayed behind with Joca, musing over some of the intractable problems of philosophy while he killed snakes. But on the last day I thought I’d try again. There were apparently compensations that the beach afforded above the intractable problems of philosophy. Portuguese woman are often sturdily built and dark-skinned. They lie on the beach, Rob and the better half reported, with gaily coloured string covering, more or less, their private parts – the latter accommodated as often as not in generous and well-oiled flesh. There were two in particular, I was told. They lie close together fingering each other’s gaily coloured string and laughing softly; we call them Bi and Large, Rob said.
Joca and I resolved to investigate this interesting phenomenon. As it happened, we never did. As soon as I got to the beach I got the feeling that Stuart Broad sometimes gets when presented with a row of Australian batsmen or Luke Skywalker when he turns off the machine. I would not fear the sun that burns or the wave that chokes. I would let the force be with me. I stripped to my togs.
Just going in, I said.
It was not cold. The waves broke about me in a manly way and in a manly way I faced them down. Suddenly the better half was at my side.
Do you need help at all? she said.
No thank you very much.
You can stand here, she said.
Yes, I said, I am.
A note came into her voice.
A wave, she shouted, pointing.
I gave her a look, infinitely loving but at the same time infinitely assured. I breasted the wave and swam some way towards Morocco.
A ghostly voice sounded in my ear.
Well done, my boy, said the Sultan.
Or at least I think that’s what he said: of course it was in Arabic.