Perking the Pansies was to be off-air for a while. After a so-so summer weather-wise, two cancelled getaways and three jabs to keep us out of intensive care, we’d had enough of samey days and dreary skies; the pansies were wilting. So a pre-festive perk with a shot of vitamin D in sunny Tenerife was on the cards. Well, we hoped for sunny. You definitely take your chances in the Canary Islands at this time of year, and we were prepared to pack the pac-a-macs with the factor 30.
Alas it was not to be. We’ve been scuppered by omicron, the latest incarnation of COVID19. It’s far better to be down than out – so we’re staying put. But this is what we’re missing and it’s made us pig sick.
We’ve all got bills to pay and everyone everywhere has been forced to adapt quickly to the new reality of these troubling times. This is as true in sleepy Loddon as it is anywhere. A case in point is Rosy Lee’s Tea Room. For many years now this tiny café has thrived on passing trade from sailors and cyclists stopping off for coffee and cake. The delightful owner, Caroline, is a bit of a local celebrity who, more than 20 years ago, floated down the River Chet, liked what she saw and stayed. But now, social distancing means the café can only accommodate one customer at a time. So what was Caroline the tea lady to do?
Extend the little secret garden she has created tucked away by Loddon Staithe*, of course. We got the call from Tom, the nice young man who renovated our cottage and sold it on to us. Would we help out? Hell, yes.
Tooled-up Tom with his broad shoulders and impressive equipment did all the butch work, constructing tables and erecting metal poles. All we really did was mow down the bramble and hold things while he wielded hammer and drill. In the meantime, Caroline kept us fed and watered. I can recommend the bacon sarnie.
Now lycra’d bikers can gather in gangs (of no more than six, of course) in a secret grove to rest and replenish with enough space to keep an eye on their fancy cycles.
Yes, that’s Liam and me with our backs to the camera. We were pleased to do our bit for a village institution.
*A staithe is a landing stage for loading or unloading cargo boats. That ship sailed long ago round these parts. Loddon Staithe is now used by those who like to muck about in pleasure boats.
Having escaped the unwanted attention of the men in black, John and I found ourselves lost and hopeless by the side of a dusty lane. What happened next?
We trekked along the road for about fifteen minutes, not really knowing whether we were heading towards or away from home. By early afternoon, the heat was suffocating, relieved only by the dappled shade of an occasional pine tree. Our ankles throbbed – our fashionable flip-flops had long since lost their allure.
Suddenly, we heard rumble, rumble, crack, crack, vroom from behind us. A car was looming towards us at full speed, engine roaring, trailing a smoky flume. We screamed like girls and threw ourselves at the kerb, John stumbling into the baked-mud gutter snapping the thong of his flip-flop.
I shouted across to John as the car sped past. ‘You okay?’
‘Yeah yeah, I’m fine. Wish I could say the same for these crappy flip-flops.’ He slotted the thong back into its socket.
Meanwhile, the car skidded to an abrupt halt just ahead, cloaking it – and us – in a cloud of petrol-smelling dust. Out leapt a slightly-built, middle-aged man in baggy suit and cloth cap, an unlit cigarette drooping from his mouth.
‘That’s it,’ said John. ‘We’re done for now. We’ll be kidnapped and sold into white slavery.’
‘John,’ I said. ‘This isn’t the Barbary Coast.’
The driver beckoned us and we took a few steps forward. ‘Where you go?’ he said.
I hesitated. ‘Turkuaz Villas.’
‘Come! Come!’ he said, masterfully. ‘We go.’
‘See, John. Nothing to worry about. Your taxi awaits,’ I said, giving an exaggerated sweep of the hand as we approached the car. We peered into the muddied old Fiat. It was rammed with a multi-generational clan – grandma in the front, three kids and mum clutching an infant in the back – all staring back at the curious yabancılar.
‘We go where, exactly?’ said John. ‘The glove compartment?’
‘What glove compartment?’ I said, looking at the twisted wires dangling from beneath the dashboard.
And that’s when poor grandma, dressed in traditional weaves – floral headscarf, crocheted cardigan, clashing pantaloons and socked clogs – was bundled out of the car. No dignity was spared.
‘So where’s she going?’ said John. ‘The roof rack?’
Grandma just smiled and squeezed into the back, the driver shoving her in from behind. Grunts and giggles ensued as the occupants resettled like loose vegetables in a shopping bag.
‘Come! Come!’ the driver said again pointing at the front passenger seat. We obeyed. John climbed in first. I followed.
‘Watch that gear stick,’ I said to John. ‘Don’t want to lose your virtue, eh?’
Tightly wedged against the door, legs plaited with John’s, I fumbled behind for a seat belt. There wasn’t one. Our cabbie jumped in, lit his cigarette, pressed his nose up to the soil-streaked windscreen, started the car and sped off, heading God knows where.
John kept his eyes firmly shut as we tore along the pot-holed road, flying over bumps and speeding into hard bends. It was like a scene from Wacky Races as our crazy driver swerved round a leisurely tractor, waving at the toothless farmhand at the wheel and barely missing a startled goat, which darted into the scrub with a pissed-off bleat. It was at that point I decided to take off my glasses; at least then I wouldn’t see the Grim Reaper coming. Meanwhile, our fellow passengers partied in the back, talking across one another and sniggering – at our expense, I suspected – along the lines of these stupid Eeenglish. I could see the joke. They’d found us stranded in the middle of nowhere frying under the midday sun in fancy flip-flops – Mad Dogs and Englishmen and all that, as famously penned by that grand old queen Noël Coward. Yep, stupid English was about right. Our driver threw himself enthusiastically into the jolly banter, looking back so many times and for so long, I nearly found Jesus.
A few minutes later we were deposited at Turkuaz Villas and rolled out, shaken and stirred but otherwise undamaged. I pulled out a wad of cash from the side pocket of my cargo shorts and examined the zillions of lira, placing my thumb over the last three zeros to get a vague sense of its worth. I held out some notes to our hero as payment for saving us (from ourselves). He just shrugged and brushed his fare aside. Then, with a parting wave, he leapt back into the car and motored off into the distance with grandma and four little faces waving back at us through the rear window.
We should have been in Spain in June – visiting old friends in pretty Sitges and a few days in gorgeous Girona. The pandemic put paid to that, of course. And, since foreign travel is probably off the agenda this year, I thought I’d raid the archives to find something about a holiday many, many years ago in a land far, far away.
For John Garner (1967-2003)
I was a Turkey virgin. It was 1997, my first time. John and I had booked a holiday with an old mucker and his latest squeeze. We were thirty-something boys-about-town desperate for a little respite from fast living and the daily grind. The glossy brochure promised tranquil simplicity and that’s what we got. Our digs were a modest whitewashed villa nestled on a craggy headland on the north side of the Datça Peninsula. The lushness of our rural idyll was totally unexpected – so much richer than the dry bush of Andalucia and the Greek islands I’d been used to. And the silent sunsets were life-affirming – spiritual, almost.
We were a week in. The hairdryer heat of a blistering August had us limp and reclining. Lazy days were spent lounging round the trickling pool – G&T in one hand, chick-lit in the other, swallows ducking and diving overhead and the deafening chorus of randy cicadas. Sultry nights brought lively conversation to a score of Holst and Madonna, and tumblers of chilled plonk on the empty beach, counting shooting stars as the lights of Bodrum flickered on the horizon. It was sublime.
But John wanted more.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said, peering over the top of a Jackie Collins.
‘What?’ I said. ‘In this heat?’
‘You can’t lie on your back with your legs up all the time,’ he said. ‘Mehmet’s getting the wrong idea.’
Mehmet, resident bottle-washer and dogsbody – and a dead ringer for Danny Kaye – showed a persistent interest, clipping bushes around us and throwing that all-too-familiar knowing look as he lit the candles each time the power was cut – a regular event most evenings. The lightless nights switched on the stars.
‘I think Mehmet’s got our number, don’t you?’ I said.
‘Look, the boys need a little privacy, you know, to get better acquainted,’ said John. ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink.’
I laughed. ‘They don’t need any encouragement. They’ve been at it like rabbits since we landed.’ I nodded at the two of them canoodling like horny otters in the pool. ‘Thank God I packed the earplugs.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said John. ‘Let’s go explore.’
Leaving behind our holiday companions to their splashing foreplay, we strolled through the ramshackle hamlet of Taşbükü and down to the sand and shingle beach. I was moist. I lifted my tee-shirt to dab my forehead and dry my specs. In the distance I could see Cleopatra Island, a verdant rock in the Gulf of Gökova. It shimmered, mirage-like.
‘Did you know,’ I said, pointing over with my glasses, ‘legend has it that Cleo snogged Mark Antony on the beach of Cleopatra Island?’
‘Oh,’ said John. ‘How very Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Wonder where he put his helmet?’
‘Where we all do, I imagine. So, where are we going?’
‘Over there, let’s go over there.’ John gestured to a long line of buildings at the far end of the bay.
‘Why?’ I said, unimpressed.
‘Because it’s there, stupid.’
Like intrepid explorers of old, we set about our quest with vigour, flip-flops in hand, splashing through the wash, joking and laughing along the way. It took about an hour to reach our destination – an assortment of identikit cubes toppling down the hill to the beach. We climbed the crazy paving steps through a rusting iron gate.
‘Oh, it’s just another holiday resort,’ John said, all drop-lipped.
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a gander anyway. Could do with a drink. Spot of lunch, maybe?’
John agreed. ‘Yeah. A cheesy pide and a glass of Efes.’
We wandered along the winding leaf-littered paths, past locked-up houses with empty terraces dripping in twisted bougainvillea. It was desolate, all waterless pools and shuttered cafés.
‘Where is everybody?’ I said.
Where indeed. It was a ghost town – soul-less apart from a street dog nodding off in the shade and a few mangy cats bickering about the bins. There were no over-wrought toddlers splashing about, no tanked-up dads propping up the bar, no mums leathering-up under the sun, no courting couples getting hot under the collar in the sweltering heat. It was eerie and unsettling. Like walking through the abandoned set of Eldorado.
‘We’re being watched,’ John whispered.
‘What do you mean we’re being watched?’
‘Over there. There’s some bloke hiding behind that bush.’
I grinned. ‘Trust you to notice a man hanging round a bush.’ But John was right. A dusky face with a handlebar moustache was poking out between the branches of a pink oleander, mumbling into a walkie-talkie. We could just hear the screechy static.
‘Now what do we do?’ I said.
Our pace quickened. Moustache man didn’t follow.
But all of a sudden, a hook-nosed apparition in black appeared from the shadows – more screechy static.
‘Okay, that’s it,’ I said. ‘Best get out of here – sharpish. Let’s head back.’
‘We can’t go back,’ said John, starting to panic. ‘The black shirts are waiting for us.’
‘To do what, exactly?’ I said.
‘Haven’t you seen Midnight Express?’
‘Get a grip, John.’
We fast flop-stepped up the hill to the entrance of the development. Hook Nose stalked us all the way, keeping a wary distance. As we neared a boom gate at the top, a pretty boy with messy hair and a grin wider than his waist emerged from a sentry box and waved us through to the open road with his walkie-talkie.
Crisis over, we stood by the side of a dusty track gathering our thoughts.
‘Bloody hell,’ said John. ‘That was close. Thought we were gonna get strip-searched.’
It was the calm before the storm. We flew out just before Storm Ciara barrelled across the flatlands on the Jet2 poofs and pensioners express to Gran Canaria with an all-male crew who minced up and down the aisles dishing up relentless jollity with the booze. We fitted right in and celebrated with fizz.
For our fix of winter sun this year we’d gone a bit more upmarket, staying at the Canary Garden Club, a well-appointed collection of whitewashed bungalows set in lush, beautifully-tended gardens. The sparkling pool was gorgeous though somewhat marred by the assortment of old fossils drying out in the sun. Still, it made us feel young again.
This was intended to be R&R gig and so we only ventured out once to the Yumbo Center – the epicentre of gay nightlife in Playa Del Inglés – with its trashy bars with their trashy boys flaunting their trashy bits. A likely lad emerged from the shadows and offered us Charlie, and I don’t mean my mother’s favourite fragrance from the seventies.
The gay scene has evolved down the years from the small intimate bars of my youth, partially hidden from view so as not to offend the easily offended, to cocktail cafés spilling out everywhere, in-yer-face drag shows banging out the show tunes and brash cruising establishments that do exactly what they say on the signs, and more – Sodom and Gomorrah in sequins and leather. We left it to the wide-eyed and lustful, and were in bed by midnight.
Most days we dined early and watched the sun go down over the Atlantic – just what the doctored ordered after an over-eventful year.
We arrived back at Stansted late – too late to travel back all the way to the middle of nowhere – so we’d pre-booked a budget hotel, or so I’d thought. To my surprise and total delight, Liam had upgraded us for Valentine’s. And on the train back to Norwich the next day, the guard hole-punched our tickets with a heart. Who said romance is dead?