Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Swim with confidence

It is the first day of our summer holiday.

We are in Cornwall. The sun is shining. Gulls are squawking. There are five of us. But we are not staying in a ruined castle, or camping on a small island just offshore from a deserted cove, or roaming the lanes in a gypsy caravan. Instead we are at the Hotel Bella Vista, West Looe.

We are sitting around the breakfast table in the bay window, overlooking the crazy golf. Beyond are rocks, a curve of tide-washed sand and the sea, turquoise near the shore, then sapphire. This morning it’s glinting with a million diamonds. And it’s waiting for us.

From oldest to youngest we are: my mother, recently widowed; her (and my) cousin Vera, who is blonde, glamorous and twenty-nine; my brother Jack who is sixteen; my brother Brendan who is fourteen; and Rory (that’s me) who is twelve.

This is the first time I have been on holiday in a hotel. Everything is excitingly different from at home: the dining room, vast with a rich, swirly pattern on its carpet; our table, with its ranks of cutlery, the heavy silver pots for tea, coffee and hot water – and the butter, scooped into little swirls, in its own silver dish.

And we have our own waiter: Bruno, tall, Brylcreemed and Italian, who calls my mother signora, and Vera signorina, and who winks at me. Everything about the hotel makes me feel grown-up.

My mother is not so sure about Bruno: ‘Don’t trust those Latin looks, Vera. A bit of a gigolo if you ask me.’

Vera laughs. Why? I’ve not heard Bruno giggle once.

‘Please, Mum, can we all go to the beach today?’

‘I don’t see why not. Jack, Brendan, you’ll be happy with that?’

‘You’ll come in the sea, won’t you, Vera?’

‘Not today, Rory – much too cold. Maybe at the end of the week.’

‘But the holiday will be almost over by then. Swim today, Vera. Please. Please.’

‘No, thanks. I’ll watch you, all right?’

‘Oh, Vera – you’ll enjoy it once you’re in. Honestly.’

A look from my mother: ‘Don’t insist, Rory. Vera will swim when she feels ready.’

But I have an idea: ‘Vera, if you’re nervous about going in the sea, there’s a special pill you can take and then you don’t feel even a bit scared of the water.’

‘Oh, really?’ says Vera, pausing as she cuts her bacon.

‘Yes, there’s an advertisement in the Readers’ Digest: a picture of a lady diving off the high board into a swimming pool. It says: “Use Tampax and swim with confidence.”’

There’s a short, but very distinct pause.

'Jack, don’t snort,’ says my mother. ‘Rory, I think I’ve left the car keys in my room. Run and get them for me – at once, please.’

As I push back my chair, she reaches for her Daily Telegraph, unfurls it briskly, scanning the headlines: ‘“Russian Spacewoman Orbits Earth”. Well, Vera – whatever next?’

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