Geronimo!

We are in the south of Portugal, staying with Rob, whom persistent readers have met before, Ines his wife and Joca, his dog, who kills snakes. It is the fourteenth anniversary of the fortuitous but well-starred day when the better half and I first met in New York. Furthermore, this morning (as I write but not, in the absence of WiFi, post) the preservation of the Union was announced, a matter greeted here with quiet satisfaction. The first dog’s ashes are scattered on Dornoch Firth, the better half has a plan to scatter mine there too in the fullness of time and it would have been distressing for her to have had to submit the little urn to the scrutiny of sneering border thugs, booted and kilted.

The better half is shouting over the telephone at some dozy apparatchik in the office of an aspiring English public school. The reasons are too complicated to relate. She expresses the view that doziness might be acceptable in one of the ancient public schools but less so in one hoping to join their ranks one day and in the meantime clinging on to such reputation as it has by its rouble-buffed finger nails.

Some of the figs that Rob grew during the summer are drying on a wall. During the night it rained heavily, the heavens matching sympathetically (or as it might be imagined sympathetically) the coursing of tears down the Salmondian cheeks. When this happens he dries them (the figs not the cheeks) individually, singing to himself a song from the ‘Canterbury Sound’ of the late nineteen sixties or seventies. They then become ‘twice-dried figs’ (the Portuguese phrase escapes me) which are a considerable delicacy here.

Life is as it should be on holiday.

We took the Eurotunnel and drove down. We spent nights at Deauville, Biarritz and Salamanca. Biarritz we thought would have an understated elegance redolent of the Edwardian era. However that turned out to be Deauville: Biarritz was full of surfers and young people asserting their right to boogie.

Deauville did have understated elegance. They were having a festival of American Film. There were posters for it everywhere; unrecognised starlets posed for photographs on the beach. It was remarkable that none of the posters referred to any individual film or even star. It was American Film pour soi and en soi that was to be celebrated. How French, we thought, smugly. Because it was a minor festival, unlike, say, that at Cannes, there was only one hooker to go round, but she was a game one, with her little shorts and her shirt unbuttoned to the waist, parading up and down with a man who may have been her pimp: equally he may just have been a friend.

A century and a half ago Deauville was painted extensively by Eugene Boudin, its beaches crowded with ladies in crinolines and little tents with bright flags. Boudin is one of my favourite minor painters and the only one named after a blood-based culinary product.

In France Bella was welcomed in hotels and restaurants. When we arrived at the latter we would be ushered to a table, inside or outside as we preferred, and the waiter would bring her a bowl of water together with the menu. The further south we got the more that changed. In Spain she was regarded with obvious reservations and in Portugal with undisguised hatred. The Portuguese word for ‘dog’ is ‘cow’ (no doubt it is spelled differently) and cows are not welcome where people go.

Salamanca, apart from its frosty way with dogs, was special. It is the fourth oldest university in Europe, after the Sorbonne, Oxford and Bologna. Cambridge, The University of the South Bank and the others came rather later. The university buildings are of honey-coloured stone, just like Oxford but not crumbly. In the bright light of the Central Iberian Plain they look like Renaissance paintings, or stage sets. Salamanca is also the world centre (if one rejects the claims of Burgos, an hour or so up the road) for the imaginative treatment of parts of the pig otherwise thought inedible. I read that it is protected by UNESCO, but whether that is for the honey-coloured buildings or the black pudding I couldn’t establish. We ate morcilla and pig’s cheek for breakfast, lunch and dinner and decided that the better half’s strange regime involving uncooked vegetables could have a short moratorium.

There are if I got it right two cathedrals there, and I went into one and hired the audio-commentary. The best bit was El Cid’s chapel, where the faithful can gaze on the great man’s crucifix. When he went into battle against the Moors he would wave this in the hand that didn’t wield the sword, presumably directing his horse with well-practised knees. El Cid had a tame bishop and confessor called Geronimo, who would ride into battle just behind him. Geronimo also had a crucifix, which you can see today. After El Cid met his sad end, famously appearing one last time dead and strapped to the horse so as to inspire his troops to courage and the enemy to despair, Geronimo cut a deal with the Moors, who allowed him to go on being a bishop so long as he didn’t say anything beastly about Muslims.

The Portuguese may not like Bella but her El Cid-like courage has inspired unwilling respect. She has taken to engaging with the great Atlantic breakers. She swims out into the surf and waits for the big one. For a moment she sinks from sight, then there she is to be seen again, ears first, being borne triumphantly onshore, riding the wave and sleek from the foam. The Portuguese stand around in groups and mutter. I imagine that they are saying, ‘Ah [or some more demotic ejaculation]! There is a dog!’

Of course it might be: ‘Surely there is something in the new EU Health & Safety Regs about foreign cows in our, Portuguese, ocean.’

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My Double, the Quite Important Assassin

I mentioned in the last post my double, the quite important assassin. I had not thought about him for some months and that night I did so. I was lying awake in our room in Rob’s farmhouse in Portugal. It was still very hot, but the windows could not be opened for fear of mosquitoes and I found it hard to settle. Next to me the better half was re-living in REM sleep an altercation that she had had with a traffic warden in which the latter had come off second best.

I mused that mosquito is the Portuguese for mosque, or possibly the other way round: that mosque is the Portuguese for mosquito. That was the association with my double: a mosque, in its English meaning, being the scene of one of his most audacious coups.

You might have thought that Bi and Large would have been a more congenial theme for a nocturnal musing, but I hadn’t actually seen them; they were described to me by Rob and the better half, who may have made the whole smutty story up just to get me to the beach.

In about 1960, when the Neapolitan ruffian, no doubt a very junior operative in a large operation, probably indeed little more than a bambino with skinny wrists, originally removed my passport from my father’s Daimler there would have been no occasion for me and my double ever to come across each other. We would have come and gone about our respective businesses and across our borders and no one would have noticed that our passports were, apart from our photographs, identical. Furthermore, as he was to tell me, he used my identity only on important occasions, when acting actually en assassin, keeping five or six Italian passports and other pieces of documentation asserting his citizenship of various other European nations, for more everyday use.

Computers changed all that, of course. During the Nineties I started experiencing delays at passport control while the official checked pieces of paper. Then one day some ten years ago I was summoned into the Little Room.

The Little Room! Fortunately this was not the first time I had been there and I had some idea what to expect. A year or so earlier the better half and I were asked into the Little Room at JFK. Three uniformed Puerto Ricans fingered the triggers on their Lee Enfields (or whatever is the American equivalent) while a young man browbeat the better half and demanded to know her ‘feelings for these United States’.

She said that her feelings were extremely positive and eventually they let us go, though only after she had been required to spit on a photo of Mr Putin which they kept for that purpose and on which the perpetual president’s unwholesome features had inevitably become tarnished by repeated gobbing – and possibly worse. I could see that they were about to require me to do likewise on a representation of Her Majesty, but I fixed them with a look and they backed off.

As we left, the three Puerto Ricans took out their frustrations on some rats which were disporting themselves in the corner of the Little Room, killing five and winging three more.

Anyway, on the second occasion I was by myself, I did not have the better half to protect and it was not at JFK but somewhere half-way civilised: Port-au-Prince, if memory serves.

Fortunately or otherwise, Caribbean French is not one of the dialects in which I am more than adequately versed. No doubt much went over my head. Certain words, assassin, meutre and famille, kept recurring. Specific questions as to my whereabouts on particular dates were fired at me, and with my computerised diary I could give them comprehensive answers. I could see that something bothered them. They kept staring at a photograph and shaking their heads. I could see it on the desk, upside down. Suffice to say that it was not of a pale Englishman.

At last they let me go. Out of pure spite they made me spend the rest of the night in their gaol. The heat and the stench were appalling, but, to be fair, some of the airport hotels around JFK are not of the sort to which one would willingly return.

I resolved to find this man who had caused me all this trouble and – who knew? – could cause me so much more.

From the far reaches of the house came sounds of plumbing’s being exercised. Since Joca has no opposable thumb it must, I reasoned, be Rob having a pee and flushing. I settled into my pillows ready for a treat.

Rob’s house has no mains supply and no well; the water is provided by a Mr Franklin, who has a truck with a tank on the back. Mr Franklin is Portuguese but his name presumably reflects an Anglo-Saxon entanglement at some point in his family’s past, just as men who live in Norfolk are often called Mr Rape or Mr Pillage or some other surname indicating Viking origins.

The water poured into the system from Mr Franklin’s tank en route for Rob’s cistern en suite. A series of rhythmical lurches marked the entry of the water, its being detained by minor airlocks and its overcoming them. Then a series of bass notes sounded, like the opening moves of a cathedral organist embarking on a toccata and fugue. I strained for the last, a very low B Flat which I knew from experience to expect. It was almost too low and too grand to be actually heard: only felt. Finally there was a series of glissandi, caused presumably by the action of air on the pipes as they filled up with water and emptied again. These were of an unearthly beauty, at once sensual and as formal as Bach.

Occasionally during the daytime the loveliness of the sounds would tempt me to flush the lavatory twice, but if I put my hand out to do so I would as often as not feel Joca’s minatory nip at my ankles: Mr Franklin’s water was not a luxury.

Settled as I now was in my bed I felt no such temptation. I was perfectly happy. Bi and Large and my assassin, my double both deserved further consideration, but that could wait until the morning. Finally, I slept.

Swimming

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.