Portugal is full of exiles. Notoriously, many are British. Some of these are not a savoury sight, clad in grubby shorts, flushed red in face and eye, sitting in bars to which Portuguese people no longer go and complaining. Less well known and much more dignified is a small group of Cherokee ancestry, who live near the beach to which we went. They speak a strange patois, half Cherokee and half Portuguese. Rob has acquired a nodding acquaintance with this tongue, which may prove invaluable for artistic reasons which I will come to later. He was therefore able to understand that some of these people, who had come to the beach to watch Bella surf, had given her a name according to their own tradition. They call her ‘Swims Like Seals’.
As we drove back to England, Swims Like Seals lay in the back seat of the car, morosely dreaming of the Perfect Wave.
The better half has an ‘app’ on her phone, which tells us where to go. A helpful man describes the towns and roads along our route. He is not strong on the pronunciation of foreign place names but he does his best. ‘Castile’, for example, perhaps the proudest word in a proud language, is rendered as ‘car stealer’. Nonetheless he is generally reliable. He took us off the motorway to see the centre of Rouen, but that was quite nice as we could then say that we had seen the cathedral. The worst bit was in Seville, where at the critical moment the connection died. You might imagine Seville: timeless, stiflingly hot, silent, the smell of the orange groves and the muffled peal of cathedral bells; a tradition of cruelty, mystery and faith. The Seville bypass, though, on which we found ourselves mid-morning on a Monday, was not like that. Huge lorries hurtled by us as we hove to on the hard shoulder; the better half gripped the steering wheel as if it were the throat of the nice man from the ‘app’ and shouted, explaining that it was all my fault. But we sorted it out: we looked at a map.
The motorways, as in England, were full of lorries. They all look similar, same number of wheels in the same places – no doubt as a result of EU regulation – except for the dressing. This includes irritating cartoon figures and improbable advertising claims. As a result I always find the vehicles of Norbert Dentressangle reassuring. They are a sober claret colour, and decoration is confined to his name and website address. There is a modest logo, a road device cleverly incorporating the letters ‘ND’. One can imagine Norbert being bullied into this by an alliance of his eldest son, Jean-Hippolyte Dentressangle – more imaginative than sound perhaps – and his accountant.
“You have to move with the times, ND,” they may have said.
“Go on, then,” he would have replied gruffly – or ‘Va t’en’, as they say in French.
I imagine Norbert as taking an old-fashioned and fatherly interest in the welfare of his drivers. He can’t relax at night until he knows that they have all arrived at their destinations and are accounted for. Preferably in his view this means tucked up in bed, although he knows that for those travelling through Spain the attractions of the roadside ‘hotels’ in that country – thinly disguised brothels – may have been irresistible and some of the lads may not be tucked up in their own beds at all but pumping away at some lazy Spanish whore. Norbert takes the view that ‘boys will be boys’ but he doesn’t mention the Spanish ‘hotels’ to Mme Dentressangle.
“Come to bed, Norbert,” she calls, kindly if perhaps a touch impatiently.
He sighs and closes his big ledger. He taps it reflectively with his big haulier’s fingers and then goes upstairs to join her.
What is it, incidentally, about the Spanish? They really have become rather unbuttoned. Whatever happened to Catholic repression? We stopped at one point to get something to eat. The sign on the road had suggested a sensible motorway facility with a choice of M&S or Burger King. Instead it took us to an appalling inn, where, because Bella was a health and safety issue, I had to stand with her in the rain outside while lorry drivers puffed the smoke from vile-coloured stogies at me. The better half went in to get a slice of sausage and some chips and she reported later that the bar was full of members of the sex-worker community, presumably waiting until the drivers had finished their sausage and their smoking and needed relief.
Of course my musings about the Dentressangle family are probably wide of the mark. Maybe ‘Norbert’ is not a Christian name at all but a surname recording a merger or acquisition at some stage involving Norbert interests and Dentressangle ones. And the name ‘Dentressangle’ gives one some pause. What can its derivation be? Presumably ‘dent’ or ‘tooth’ is involved, and ‘étrangler’ or ‘strangle’. That would be a concern. No doubt a visit to the website would clarify all, but one would rather not: one would rather live with one’s dreams.
Anyway it provided an hour’s distraction as we bowled along through the anodyne landscape of Les Landes. Swims Like Seals slept on. Rob, I like to think, has already benefitted from his fortuitous introduction to the members of the Cherokee-Portuguese community. During our time at his house I urged him to relieve the plain white of his veranda wall with a large mural painting of a member – or members – of the Native American community: possibly Geronimo, possibly Buffy Ste. Marie, possibly both. I was surprised and pleased that he liked this proposal: ‘took it on board’, as we are encouraged to say these days. I like to think that even now he is crouched with one or more of them on the beach, examining rough drawings in the sand: an aquiline eye here, a feather there.