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The Portuguese Diaries: The Falling Baby

“We are formed by what we desire”. I dive in and out of John Irving’s latest novel but this one line from its opening page resonates and keeps drawing me back to the initial lines of the book. The truth is, my eyes are failing. Small and constricted, the font is the frontline in a battle to covey the words from the page to my brain.

This was our desire. Throughout the coldest British winter for 60 years we talked of it. Huddled for warmth under sofa throws and sweaters, hoods pulled up over our heads, this was our end game: a big house on Portugal’s southern Atlantic coast, baking in the heat, doors flung open, walking from the bedroom to the pool in 10 steps. Ten months of work and toil, rising before dawn and home after sunset in service to children has beaten the path to the great iron gates that mark the entrance to this 6 bedroom house. Personal energies distilled into a week’s occupation- living like the rich we so despise.

Timeless and dragging, the Sun pulls opposite the strong Atlantic breeze that constantly blows through the endless miles of Algarve coastline. The name is Moorish; Al-Gharv, meaning the western lands. In Roman times this was the end of the world, the furthest reaches known to man. Now it is a juxtaposition of package holiday Med and a rich history that gave us the first circumnavigation of the globe. Shops jostle shoulder to shoulder with inflatable rafts shaped like crocodiles and Portuguese linen delicately embroidered with the green of its former North African masters and Sangria red.

Twelve of us- on the whole a blood relation group peppered with a few additional friends occupy the house in the baked valley just inland from Gale Beach. The restaurants are few and crowded. Booking is essential. I am sent out in the noon day sun to secure a table for the same evening. The English like to eat at 7pm, the Portuguese at 9. Ever conscious of being a tourist who likes to be immersed in the local culture, I opt for an 8pm reservation.I stand in the restaurant waiting for the attentions of the bottle blonde Portuguese woman who stands behind the bar doting on her 6 year old daughter’s hair. A second child, a baby just old enough to sit autonomously is perched on the edge of the bar facing its family. Children are respected here, more so than in London. Restaurants welcome them. The very young can be seen chattering exuberantly and peeking their heads out from under the table cloths in most eateries.

The Portuguese mother continues to toy with her daughter’s hair. A brief exchange of smiles are shared between myself and the 6 year old but she mainly keeps her eyes focussed squarely on the baby perched precariously (IMHO) on the counter’s edge. I recognise the mother from the garish photo of her in a wedding dress which fills the great void between the bar and kitchen. Reservations must wait. There are children to attend to. And I approve.

With a twisting shoulder I watch the baby struggling to gain its fledgling balance. Default settings of child protection embedded in the ten months of dark working days bubble to the surface. I glance at the mother and daughter who so attentively had been watching the infant. But their collective gaze is temporarily distracted as a thick, blue elastic band is looped around the young girl’s ponytail.

In that split second, in this land where time is measured by the Sun dragging opposite the Atlantic winds, I shoot a glance back at the baby now extending its other arm in a primitive attempt to steady itself. But the balance has been tipped. The baby is leaning forward and falling irretrievably from the bar. Shouting out a guttural, inactive sound- void of recognisable words, I jump onto the counter top. With a great sweep of my bear-like arm I gather the baby up to my even greater body.

Both mother and daughter stare at me in disbelief. The clocks are standing still. The sun is not dragging but stalled. The mother’s face is contorted and confused, the antithesis of the joyous expression she wears in the wedding photo.

My heart is racing and filled with adrenaline. All my senses (including my failing eyesight, dear readers) are at alarm level. I look again at the young girl, her hands still aloft fussing on her ponytail. Her mother’s puzzled eyes meet mine as (I assume) she is realising the gravity of the situation.

It is only then that I feel the baby’s rubbery texture on my forearm. The hardness pressing into my torso is an electrical box on its back for 2 C-size batteries. I am holding a doll.

Half laughing, half panting from the excitement I hand the doll to the little girl with the ponytail just as the woman’s husband (I recognise him from the wedding photo) enters from the kitchen door.

Patting my heart with the palm of my hand I relay to the groom, in slow and simple English, my misconception and my reason for being on top of the bar. He translates the story into Portuguese to his wife and daughter who burst out laughing.

I am not asked to leave a name for my 8pm reservation for a table for 12 people. They will remember me. I am the crazy English man who rescued the doll. The man made the fool in an attempt to keep a child safe- albeit a rubbery one motorised by 2 C-size batteries.

We are formed by what we desire.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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Ibiza Diary: Cinco

Dusk comes late here; as if the Sun knows that summer days are precious and it wants to play while it can. I am smoking a cigarette on our apartment’s balcony watching Farmer Morrie feed the chickens. The beach towels hanging over the rail are already dry. Lights are starting to appear in the windows of the 12-storey Hotel Miami down on the sea front.

Last night I had a cocktail-fuelled dream. I was the King of Ibiza and my palace was a penthouse suite in the Miami. Dressed as King Henry VIII, I sat fat and pompous on a great red velvet throne; disproportionately large for a hotel suite. Locals and tourists came to seek an audience and a royal decision on their matters at hand. The dream could be an omen.

By 9pm the bats are swooping out of the almond trees. They dive and flutter, skipping across the pool water, gathering clumps of Dutch beard hair to fortify their nests. Everyone has showered and is dressed for the evening. Women totter from the local hotels dressed for a royal wedding; their long white and yellow floral dresses highlight the day’s tanning. When did long skirts come back into fashion?  I remember the rule that as the economy gets worse, hem lines get longer. Men in shorts and English football shirts shuffle behind in flip-flops complaining it is impossible to eat in this heat.

Waiting for Mr and Mrs Pineapple, my own family has assembled outside our apartment. We stroll down Bat Lane, not to the beach at Calla Nova but to the far end which dog legs through the rough almond trees and into the town. Careful steps are needed so not to kick up the dry Spanish dust, lest it cling to our shoes and pastel colour clothes.

Geckos scurry across our path, darting for the cracks in the mud and limestone walls that line the almond grove. Local superstition claims it is good luck to encounter one. Good fortune must about on this rocky island as the lizards are everywhere. When I am King of Ibiza I will include a gecko on my coat of arms.

One large specimen has taken up residence under Mrs Pineapple’s patio furniture. He has been unimaginatively christened Larry the Lizard. Larry grows fat on the crisps and sandwich ends the children have been feeding him all summer. He ventures tentatively towards the offered morsels and waddles away to the safety and shade under the patio sofa with his treat.

First stop is one of the many sea front restaurants; each serving either a range of Mediterranean dishes or English fayre.  The service is reassuringly slow in true Spanish tradition. British tv is blasted from multiple screens dotted around each restaurant. It is an abomination, almost pornographic. Surely we all have attempted to ‘get away from it all’ and the back drop of the sea at twilight is lost as Dermot O’Leary screams at me to watch the next X Factor audition. When I am King of Ibiza these screens will be no more.

My disappointment is tempered by the fact our dining table is surrounded by our family and friends. This is the only time we can undertake such a sitting. London flats are too small for such large tables and city life is poorer as a result.  Our waiter is a frustrated comedian. He jokes and teases the children in broken English as he circumnavigates the dozen bodies around our table. I sit at the top and nod my royal approval at the jester’s mirth-making.

After dinner we head to one of the local themed bars for the evening cabaret. Musical comedy, sing a longs and hypnotists are the default setting. My bulk and shiny bald head make me a prime target for the acts’ ‘let’s get a volunteer from the audience onto the stage.’  That and the fact my children point at me with huge gestures when the MC says “Turn up the house lights.”

I am summoned to the stage to be transformed into one of the Spice Girls. I am hoping for Sporty but am assigned Scary. Dear readers, I do know what dress size I would wear if I was so inclined but the cheap lycra mini dress I am given does not even fit over my head.

When I am King of Ibiza, lyrca mini dresses will be plentiful across this land to cater for the fuller-figured monarch.

The cocktail waitresses bring a steady stream of Harvey Wallbangers, Margaritas and sangria. Have I yet to experience a sober evening on this island? There is the sound of laughter and we sing a long to the cheesy cabaret songs; “…Hands. Touching hands.  Reaching out, touching me….”

I stand at the rail of the bar’s outdoor terrace; surveying my kingdom. I am King of Ibiza and I declare the following doctrines to be His Majesty’s pleasure:

  1. Nude sun bathing will require a license and only by royal decree will such be granted to anyone over 40 years old.
  2. Persons and subjects of a hirsute appearance will not be allowed in the pool.
  3. British tv shows are banned. In fact all tv is banned with the exception of football of course.
  4. Bat Lane shall be paved and include a shuttle service to run between the cocktail bars and the royal boudoir.
  5. All drinks (not just cocktails) will include the psychedelic array of plastic parrots, feathers on sticks, streamers and sparklers that at present adorn every cocktail. This should take morning coffee to a different level.
  6. The gecko is our national symbol.
  7. ‘Sweet Caroline’ is our national anthem.

Lord Ray of Winstone sits at my side giving me the thumbs-up. “Blinding good,” he pronounces.

And so it is written.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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Ibiza Diary: Cuatro

It is 100 degrees. Fahrenheit. I still think in Fahrenheit. My daughters laugh at me. They are Celsius children. To them it is 38 degrees; and this I can’t compute other than trying to double the number and add 30. To me if it was 38 we would be a bit cold sitting here at poolside outside our apartment on Bat Lane. 38 is London weather. 38 is duvets on the sofa and thick socks. The girls say if it was 100 the pool water would be in a state of rolling boil. I realise that even science is relative. Religion, more so.

Lucifer is still my literary companion. His advice that Hell is sensory resonates. My heartbeat has slowed to the pace of the incandescent heat from the high Spanish sun.

Splotches of blue Mediterranean remonstrate through the almond trees and parched pines as if seeking consensus with the cooling waters of the swimming pool. It is a prod of Heaven; responding to the sensual Hell.

‘Don’t be gullible,’ I imagine the Devil whispers. ‘Those waves were Noah’s flood, the bones of a million sinners still lie 100 feet beneath the sea bed’s mud. The marine salt that rings your lips is their tears crying out to God for salvation. Salvation that wasn’t delivered.’

My mind wanders to 45 years ago. I am in Sunday School looking at a picture of Noah’s Ark. In the image there is a great storm and the great ship is not yet fully afloat. Those who have been deemed undeserving by God are on the few rocks still yet to be submerged. They plead with the bearded Noah to be let aboard. They are lost. They are drowning. A giraffe looks through an open hatch in horror. Noah looks lovingly at the storm clouds, ignoring the screams of those who repented too late. The picture has always frightened me and Lucifer knows it.

Locusts in the almond trees are a steady buzzer. They rub their wings in warning that Hell has opened up and the abyss is nigh. I am baked dry: sandwiched between the calefaction worming up through the red, cracked rock and El Sol.

It is my moment of temptation in the Judean desert. I will not make bread from the rock. I will not expect the angels to save me.

My book drops from my hand and falls face down next to a wasp. Its cautionary yellow and black bands flag the locusts’ prognostication. Flying in gentle circles above the stone it seeks a drink of water from the shallow puddles left by bathers departing the pool.

Redemption is always near. I fall weightless into the deep end of the pool. The flooding water surrounds my ears; its freight train rush drowns the locusts’ buzz. The coolness instantly vanquish any remaining notions of Hell. I open my eyes a meter below the surface to witness nothing but blue; heaven-like blue.

Mrs Head swims past me. She is not a strong swimmer and her jerking, frog-like strokes guide me even closer to my familiar, earthly existence. Turning in the blue-lit water she undertakes a more fluent back-stroke with wide sweeping arm motions. She now looks like an angel.

We stand in water up to her neck as we speculate on the stories behind the other sun worshippers at poolside; the occupants to the other apartments owned by Farmer Mortie. We pass judgements and make fun of them. I am Noah, now looking down from the ark, smug and righteous; dry and sanctified.

A Dutch woman lounges at poolside, naked. Her skin has turned to leather. She must be in her mid fifties and I offer that she has been sun bathing for more than half a century. Without interruption. She is accompanied by three pot-bellied men, all perhaps a decade older than her. Each man is bearded and with thick back hair that holds the water long after they have removed themselves from the pool. “A Dutch Ménage à trios plus one,” Mrs Head offers. I suggest there is some sort of rota and each one takes a daily shift.

A Spaniard from the mainland talks loudly into his mobile phone. His long hair is tied in a pony tail. He too has a rough, untrimmed beard. “An extra from the Planet of the Apes,” I offer.

The poolside males; the three Dutchmen and Cornelius the Ape stare down. Perhaps their English is better than I expect and they understand every word we say. My mind drifts again. I am now in the churches I have witnessed in adulthood: with stained-glass impressions of obscure Saints and more familiar Old Testament characters from Sunday School. They are stern looking but if memory serves, my childhood Sunday School teacher confirms they are men of God, and therefore not to be afraid.

Peeking through the trees I look for Noah’s ark on the rising waters.

My daughters have had enough of the sun for one day. Whether it is 100 or 38 degrees doesn’t matter; the heat is too much for them. They have been Londoners too long it seems.  They return to the apartment to watch Spanish television in the cool of the room.

I realise that even science is relative. Religion, more so. Lucifer, on a level I agree with you; perhaps Hell is sensory. But Heaven is embedded in that part of us that feels beyond the 5 senses.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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Ibiza Diary: Dos

Bat Lane is a dusty, unpaved, crescent-shaped track that curves through a scruffy almond farm. One end of the trail empties behind Popeye’s: the first of the town’s noisy, boisterous bars serving over-elaborately decorated cocktails such as Blue Sky and Coco Loco. Each is adorned with plastic parrots, feathers, metallic streamers and sparklers. The multiple television screens serve up a constant and silent diet of British sports. Grim northerners sit supping John Smith’s bitter and staring gormlessly at the screen.

At sundown bats swoop through the pale street light feasting on the 100 billion insects that have been biting us tourists throughout the day. I resist the temptation to whack a low flying bat with the paddle from the swimming pool’s tennis game, despite the fact that the act would establish me back to my rightful spot at the top of the local food chain. Instead I wonder out loud (for the safety and information of my daughters) if a) the bats are rabid b) the old wives’ tale that bats build nests in long hair is true c) Ibiza is a popular retirement venue for vampires.

Ghostly and abandoned; an overgrown mini golf game and bar add to the horror film atmosphere of Bat Lane at night. It is mandatory to pick long pieces of dried grass and flick others on the back of the neck as the bats swoop. The only other buildings on the dirt paved track are a small villa, a ramshackle ice factory, our block of apartments and Mr Pineapple’s house.

Lambeth Bridge in London is accented by four large pineapples made of Portland stone. It marks the point where the exotic fruit was first brought ashore from boats on the Thames; giving Londoners their first taste of the sharp, sweetness. Pineapples soon came to represent affluence in polite 16th century society. To place a pineapple on one’s table suggested great wealth and prosperity and became the equivalent of today’s Cristal champagne. It showed you could afford the best.

As pineapples became more prevalent, so did their symbolic significance. The pineapple became a sign of hospitality. This is still evident in the Amish art work of Pennsylvania: the fruit takes pride of place in many hexes and barn art designs, welcoming visitors.

Our London neighbours have the largest house on Bat Lane. Their white geometric Spanish home stands shrouded in sea-grassed privacy. Two large stone pineapples sentinel the entrance.

Mr and Mrs Pineapple bought the house a few years ago. An elderly couple from Valencia were the former occupants and our neighbours have spent considerable time and care to renovate and improve the property. Little remains of the original property save the traditional front door and a heavy wooden crucifix which now hangs in our London bedroom.

At night, the patio of their Moorish inspired pool is bathed in green light. The bats are naturally attracted and flutter above as we sip San Miguel and watch the stars. When the bars close the sound of waves crashing on the Mediterranean shore can be heard echoing around the almond groves.

Across the street we have taken two of the 10 apartments. The block, the smaller villa, all the buildings on Bat Lane are owned by the same farmer: Mortie. Despite sounding like the father of a New York Jewish princess, Mortie is an aging Spanish man whose family own the almond farm. The same family own and work all the other buildings on the lane including our apartments.

Mortie had wanted to purchase Mr Pineapple’s house but was ultimately gazumped by our neighbours. This has caused bad blood between the two families reminiscent of a spaghetti western. Mortie undertakes the obscure and antiquated legal practice of denouncing every one of Mr Pineapple’s home improvements. It seems ‘denouncing’ is the equivalent of planning permission but without the paper work. I take the opportunity to illustrate the absurdity of the practice by announcing that almond farmer Mortie is at the door, ready to slap Mr Pineapple with a single glove; “Miz people is very poor and you have brought great deeshonour to our land senor.”

The remaining apartments are filled with three or seven-day occupancies. German, Spanish, Russian and Dutch can be heard coming from the windows. We lay back on the darkened patio watching the flashing lights of airplanes bringing them into the island’s only airport 20 miles to the south: from Frankfurt, Madrid, Moscow and Rotterdam. The bats race the airplanes before realising there are plenty of inspects to go around for the great steel birds to have their fill as well.

The London switch is in the off position. For weeks it will remain so. To flick it on again will set into motion the bustle, the stress, the existence enslaved to minutes and hours. I relax for the first time in months. I denounce the rat race lifestyle with the slap of a single glove.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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Red Pomegranate

Stuffed and mounted chicken. Check. Assorted insects in plastic ice cubes. Check. Red pomegranate. Check.

If customs stop me I am going to have a hard time explaining this.

Mrs Head has packed us up for the annual pilgrimage to Ibiza.  She keeps reminding me that one suitcase is full of assorted tricks, pranks and general mirth-making accessories. It seems I am the only one who finds them entertaining.

The red pomegranate gets pride of place. I nicked it from our friend’s villa down in The Med last summer and since then it turns up unexpectedly in family photos. Sister-in-law’s recent wedding? Red pomegranate. Christmas dinner pics? Red pomegranate.

It’s stupid but I find it funny.

Head Lines will be down for the next few weeks as I transplant myself to a sun lounger. We are joining that great exodus of Londoners leaving the city during August. It will the sun on my back and the Med at my ankles. Bliss.

About 20 of us local folk will be taking over the village of Es Canar in Ibiza and making it an annex of our own London neighbourhood.

No internet. No Blackberry. No blogs.

Just sangria, sun and serious fun.

See you all back here at the end of the month, dear readers.

 

Keep the faith,

 

The Head

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