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 hit you.
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 term.
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 adventurer.
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.
Copyright 2006, Trevor Norton. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Da Capo press. All reights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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