At the Spanish City there was still some of the fun of the
fair: the Waltzer, dodgems smelling of sparks, and flashy lads in kiss-me-quick
hats who stood on the cars chatting up your girl while taking the fare. In the
amusement arcades, ball bearings clattered around in the ancient mechanical slot
machines. Men in short white coats roamed the floor like disconsolate dentists.
Change! they cried. Any change required?
The times they were a-changing. The
gypsy palmist, having read between the lines, packed up and left.
I didnt misspend my youth; in fact, I didnt spend it at
all. It just fell through a hole in my pocket. In summer my mates and I lounged
on the beach listening to the shrieks of timid bathers, their skins in summer
scarlet. The donkeys had been temporarily displaced by rides on an army surplus
DUKW from which dads might relive the D-Day landings. We eyed the girls in their
new nylon bathing cossies, which were a big advance on the old woollen ones as
they were transparent when wet. On quiet days we amused ourselves by divining
the character and lifestyle of those who had left their bum prints on the beach.
The smallest pleat in the sand or asymmetry of cheeks would reveal acres of
biographical detail. It was a form of palmistry and about as reliable.
The opaque water slithered in, then oozed out again. It
never seemed to smile and it never got warm. Autumn always came too soon, with
winds that caused the gull droppings to fall obliquely and congeal before they
I didnt enjoy being young. Perhaps I wasnt very good at
it. My parents were summoned by the headmaster to be told that I was the worst
boy in the school. To me this became almost a point of honour.
My essays, though lively, were decorated with extraneous
scrawls and blots, which I rather liked, but they elicited tetchy comments such
as Keep this book away from the dog! Perhaps I was concerned that, should my
handwriting improve, they might discover how little I knew. I came a creditable
bottom of the class in woodwork: 15th out of 15 Much improved work this
Television was to change my life for ever with a
series of films in which Hans Hass went
Diving to Adventure.
Each week he swam with giant manta rays and moray eels, and his luscious wife,
Lotte perched on mounds of coral while sharks circled ominously. She looked good
enough to eat.
In one film Im almost sure she peeled and swallowed a
banana underwater. I forget the biological significance of this, but it made a
lasting impression on at least one fourteen-year-old boy. I coveted Hasss
beautiful yacht and the freedom to rummage below on tropical reefs. And then, of
course, there was Lotte. I decided that I too would become a handsome Austrian
As soon as the spring sea warmed to almost frigid, I
submerged beneath the waves for the first time equipped only with a pair of
bathing trunks. Instead of the ripple of sun flecks on the pale sand, all I saw
was a blur swilling below me, and a fuzzy cloud as a flatfish fled. Our eyes
dont work in water. They need a layer of air to allow them to focus. So I
bought a diving mask and a snorkel with a caged ping-pong ball to keep out the
water. Begoggled, amphibian-footed and carrying a toasting fork fixed to a
bamboo pole, I slid off the sandstone slabs at St Marys Island and into the
cold and cloudy sea.
In a kelp-lined gully the tall plants swayed back and forth
in the wash of the waves. It felt as if I were passing between rows of galley
slaves pulling against a big sea. I was fighting the swell one moment, surging
forward into a fizz of bubbles the next.
Bursting for breath, I thrust my head into the gloom beneath
the canopy of kelp. With each movement above there was a flicker of sun and
shadow on the rocks beneath. Then two seaweeds closed around my neck with the
soft hands of a strangler. I shot to the surface and tried to look as
unconcerned as Hans Hass in a swirl of sharks.
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