I married a pirate.
Well, that’s the short explanation, but I owe you more than just four words. I know I do. You've been so brilliant... Look, he was one of my Internet men. I had dozens of them when I lived in France. It was just a late night hobby, emailing nonsense to virtual lovers all over the globe. It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re as sad and pathetic as I was.
The twins were still little then and I was cursing all men and endlessly struggling to make ends meet. Sounds a bit dire now, but that's how it was and I wasn’t alone. The hills were alive with the sound of domestic discord. Every second mother I knew was singing the same song: I got kids, But no cash, Cos Romeo, Done buggered off and left me for his sodding secretary/personal assistant/plumber.
Between the lot of us, we could only muster about one part-time bloke. Two on a good day.
Anyway, I escaped from all this dire-ness by exchanging emails with Internet men. You know the sort of thing: "Hello kevikof4637, my day was truly dreadful, how was yours?"
Most of them replied: "Very busy at work today, out playing squash tonite".
But PirateXXX used to ask me why my day had been so awful, and then come back with: "Don’t panic, the kids are fine, you are wonderful mother, don’t worry about roof and above all don’t answer letters from tax office. Then they don’t know if you exist or not." (That piece of advice actually worked too.)
He said he lived on a traditional pirate’s ship - a 60-foot ketch; double-masted, iron-hulled, equipped with powerful engines as well as sails, radios, global positioning system, electronic charts, radar, computers and generators.
I tell you, Philippa, it’s a fabulous boat. There are berths and seating for a dozen people, a large galley, showers, lavatories, teak decks and railings, canvas shades rigged against the sun. He keeps her riding at anchor just off a small Caribbean island because she’s too big to sail single-handed. If he wants to go somewhere, he either takes his speedboat or gets someone to fly him.
Oh, she is beautiful, all polished teak and white sails - a real dream boat - unlike the Pirate, who is about as dreamy as a shark.
“Where’s yr man?” he demanded.
Me. Well, I've always been alone, apart from those few short months with... but you know, I got pregnant by accident and the minute he realised that an abortion was out of the question, he bogged off prontissimo. I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t suppose he even knows that it turned out to be twins. Charming, huh?
“The last great romantic,” remarked the Pirate. “Where you living?”
“In somebody else’s joke,” I replied sourly.
“Not a tent?”
“That would be luxury. Where do you live?”
“On the Sun,” he typed. That’s what he called his pirate ship: the Sun. His personal speedboat is called the Venus, and the rest of his fleet - various other smaller speedboats, a collection of yachts and a handful of catamarans - have matching celestial names: Mars, the Moon, etc.
He doesn’t actually fly the Jolly Roger, but believe me, he has a fine selection of dodgy flags to hoist aloft and neither his fleet nor anything else is respectably registered. Because he's a pirate.
Oh God, Philippa. I know! It sounds crazy and no, I’ve never gone in for bodice-heaving or leaping about with a dagger between my teeth. Nor has he, actually. He doesn’t sit in crow’s nests, or slide down ropes or swing from chandeliers. He doesn’t look anything like Errol Flynn: he isn’t dashing or handsome or sexy. He doesn’t have flashing eyes or a smile that would amuse Queen Victoria, and he certainly won’t ever turn out to be the wronged son of a noble count or the dashing defender of the poor and oppressed.
He’s not that sort of pirate. He makes furious sweaty phone calls rather than swinging from the rigging. Frankly, he’s short, fat, old and irascible.
What’s more, he’s as amoral as a cat on heat. He steals, cheats and kidnaps and he only ever does what he wants. He’s never motivated by honour or duty. Duty! He doesn’t have any duties. He doesn’t pay any either. He doesn’t give a flying fish about obligations. He runs his personal empire, increases his wealth, and for the rest, unless it’s fun, he shrugs his shoulders and lets it fall overboard.
I bet you’re wondering why I fell for him, then? Oh, I don’t know. He was fun. He was carefree and optimistic and had answers for all my problems; he made me feel that life wasn’t that hard after all. I thought he understood me. I felt I'd finally found a soul mate. Ah well. At least he emailed regularly.
“What about you? Where you living? Tell me,” he ordered.
The house was in the mountains, which seemed okay when I first got there. It would. I didn’t notice the leaky roof when I bought the place. Because I was pregnant, that's why. Just bursting with hormones and daydreams. And having been born in Paris myself, for some insane reason I thought it would be romantic to have my baby in France.
So I bought the house by cashing in my share of the flat in London - that was from when I was working for the record company - intending to do it up, bask in the sun, learn how to cook and occasionally teach piano in order to pay for the Ambre Solaire.
As you know, it didn’t work out like that. For one thing it rained constantly, and for another I didn’t have a baby, I had twins.
“What about yr family? Don’t they help?” he snapped.
I didn’t reply to that one. I wasn’t ready to tell him all that stuff. I mean, I hate people being sympathetic about my mother. She was killed in a road accident when I was twelve. But I told you about that, didn't I?
Anyway, I got packed off to boarding school and at the time I thought the world had ended. I hated my mother for dying, I hated my father for sending me away and I hated everyone else just for good measure. But you know, what else was Daniel supposed to do? He's a musician. He travels all the time. So what do you expect? My mother was dead. I was in boarding school. My father found someone else. Of course he did.
I know what it’s like on the road, on tour, gigging in Hamburg, playing sessions in Madrid. I know because Muma and me travelled everywhere with him until the accident. The only people I ever knew when I was growing up were other musos, opera singers, theatre people... I mean, even me, I’ve always worked in the music business one way or another and so has everyone I’ve ever known.
Perhaps that’s why when the Pirate sailed into my life and dropped anchor, he didn't seem so outrageous to me. He wasn’t a musician, but he wasn’t from civvy street either. I felt at home with him. He made me laugh.
What was I saying? Oh yes, I hate having to explain everything to outsiders, people who can’t understand. People who tut and look shocked. You know, even when I had the twins and settled down, I was living on such a tightrope that people still used to give me pitying looks. So when the Pirate first asked me about my family, I didn’t trust him not to be sorry for me. I mean, I hardly knew him then. Anyway, I didn’t reply.
Two days later he emailed again. “What? You got no family? They all dead? I gotta dead sister. Fell down the stairs. Tell me.”
So I told him the whole boring saga and he wasn’t in the slightest bit sympathetic. “What? Ain’t you got no friends?” he complained. So I told him about Nickie.
My mate Nickie. We met just after the twins were born. Shell-shocked and exhausted on my way home from the French maternity unit, I staggered into the chemist clutching a prescription running into three pages of A4 and there she was, with a toddler screaming on her lap and a wet dog panting at her feet.
When she saw me with the two newborns stuffed into one pram and the rain streaking down my face and the fag I’d forgotten to drop on the pavement outside, she laughed. In fact, she had hysterics: wheezed and coughed, hacked away, thumping her chest, squashing her toddler and intermittently apologising.
All around us, sedate French matrons were raising their eyebrows and tucking their chins into their collars. They take babies very seriously in France. The chemist wasn’t amused either, and catching his eye suddenly I collapsed into overdue hysterics as well.
Nickie is a painter, and she'd toshed in her office job to come to France and concentrate on her art.
“Bloody hell!” said the Pirate. “Don't you know no-one normal?”
"Well, if you think she's mad, it's lucky you don't know Fiona,” I typed back. “I mean Nickie's practically bourgeois, she’s so organised compared to Fiona."
“Who the fuck’s she?”
Well, she was Nickie's friend really, but she was way more outrageous than us. I mean for example, Fiona didn’t have special men, boyfriends or husbands, that sort of man. She just had Guys - a succession of mucky, sulky, black-eyed gypsies strutting about her caravan in colourful neckties with pockets full of weed. And a goat.
In fact, I think she’s still got the goat. No, don’t laugh, Philippa. I’m not joking, she had a pet goat. A stinky mottled creature with broken horns and mad eyes. It ranged around head-butting old ladies in the daytime, but it slept in the caravan at night. Probably even slept in her bed. No, not shagging her! Just farting and trampling and eating the sheets. That sort of goaty type thing that goats do. You know? No, no. I know. You haven’t ever shared a caravan with a goat.
Anyway, so there we were, the three of us, all English, all stranded in southern France. Me, Nickie, and Fiona; all of us with kids, none of us with two centimes to rub together and only Fiona with some sort of male to call her own, even if she did call him Billy.
“Jesus Christ,” swore the Pirate. “Fucking crazy Englishwomen...”
Although I think Nickie was still married then. Not to the father of her kids, to some sex-crazed hunk she met years before and never quite got round to divorcing. Or had he divorced her by then and simply forgotten to let her know? Can't remember. Anyway, she was sort of married. Not that it did her much good.
Not that anything would have done us any good at that point. You have to remember, we were hormonally challenged and deeply disappointed women. To us, men were just fathers who didn’t pay maintenance, hopeless cases who turned up demanding food and alcohol, dickheads who could empty a bank account faster than a bar and drank whisky with all meals including breakfast... yep, all in all just Standard Issue Class A Bastards.
All except the Pirate. He wasn't a bastard. In fact, he quickly became my best friend. Apart from Nickie, of course. I could rely on him to laugh at the same things as me and he sent silly cartoons and jokes. He saw the funny side of life, however black it got.
Because apart from poverty and parenthood, we did have comedy. We had lots of that. Addictive, bittersweet comedy, as soft and black as the night. Like when Nickie cut her chin open splitting logs and couldn’t go to the clinic because she didn’t have the cash.
Me and Fiona had gone over to help cut last year’s Christmas cards into new ones, and there she was, rain-soaked and red-faced, with blood pouring from the gash on her chin and the dog going potty trying to lick it off her t-shirt, and Fiona accused her of trying to dye her clothes on the cheap.
For a split second I thought Fiona’s life was worthless, but then Nickie choked and we all cracked up. Again.
We stumbled indoors and Fiona cobbled a sweet corn omelette together for the collective kids present while Nickie found cotton wool, bathed her chin and realised she needed stitches. Needless to say none of us had health insurance, so in the end Nickie got her chin sewn up with rough blue string by the vet.
He owed her a favour because she’d taken a litter of kittens off his hands in the summer, but he was afraid someone might see through the kitchen window so having given Nickie a whole handful of useless canine painkillers he did it really quickly, leaving her literally in stitches but trying not to laugh because it hurt too much.
Between hoots she begged me and Fiona to shut up, but we couldn’t stop because we were both in the same boat. We all had string in our chins one way or another, and that was about all we did have. None of us had a bean. Blimey, we didn’t even have purses, we were so broke.
About a week later when she had to get the stitches out, Nickie went off to find the vet again. Obviously she daren’t go to anyone else. But the vet had taken fright and wouldn't have anything to do with it so she had to take the stitches out herself. She says she couldn’t keep her hands steady for laughing because it was all so awful. Which is why she still has faint blue lines under her skin: she didn’t get all the string out.
So after that if anyone started moaning, we used to chorus "and I’ve still got string in my chin". But mostly we only moaned from laughing too much.
Apart from anything else, we loved being in France. We were addicted to it, to the beauty of the mountains, the poetry of the ancient villages, the rhythm of traditional village life, the warmth of the sun, the colour of the sky.
We were living our dreams.
But I digress. That was my life, and that was why I had the Internet men. I mean apart from the poverty I was too busy with the kids to bother with a real man - even if there’d been one on the horizon, which there wasn't. So I used to flirt with and fantasise about a bunch of unknown strangers. At least that way I wouldn’t get pregnant again or find myself facing an irate Frenchwoman wielding a ham-knife. In Cyberland, even the Pirate seemed safe.
But gradually the other Internet men fell by the wayside. They were boring compared to him. I got into the habit of emailing him constantly; to pass on the gossip, bitch about the neighbours, complain about the kids, gloat over my small successes, and drone on about the washing machine packing up, and the house being so glacial all winter.
And he used to come back with all sorts of advice on how to chop wood without amputating your chin, how to mend an oven door with a tin opener, and what to say to morons who asked if I liked being on holiday all the time. He also offered to shoot people I didn’t like and it wasn’t long before he offered to send me tickets so I could visit him in the Caribbean. He emailed every day. Sometimes twice a day.
"Come here and let me look after you. I send tickets."
He said he'd lived in the Caribbean for twenty-five years and had a business there - something to do with yachts and T-shirts. And he claimed to have pots and pots of the folding stuff and swore that he wanted nothing better than to squander it on me. Because I am blonde of course. And thin. He saw that from the photo I sent him.
When he got it, he instantly emailed: "You are too thin. You need me to look after you, come and live on my ship with me. I love you."
I emailed back immediately: "Cut the crappy lurve-stuff. You've never even met me."
So he sent me pictures of his Caribbean island and his boat, and the beaches, and asked yet again if I would go and see him - just for a holiday, no strings attached. I mailed back and said no, I couldn’t possibly drag my kids halfway across the globe and anyway I haven’t got the money and he declared that money was nothing more than a psychological phenomenon.
"If you wanted money, you’d have it," he said. "Think about that.”
Well, I suppose he was right. I didn't earn much because I refused to work during the twins' school holidays, which meant I was constantly scrubbing about teaching piano to the local kids instead of getting a proper full-time job at the sweet factory like all the other mothers.
I didn't really want to discuss that though, so I told him about the French countryside and what it was like to find a bolt-hole from the rat race, and he said he’d done the same thing when he ran away to sea and washed up in the Caribbean.
You see, Philippa! That's what I fell for. He just understood. He never said stuff like "Oh, aren’t you brave?” or "I don’t know how you cope," or "Don’t you ever get bored living out there on your own?"
He told me tall tales about his life and his adventures at sea and sometimes he’d just write nonsense to cheer me up.
"Darling woman, let me take you in my arms, let me smooth away all your cares... my day was boring too, I had to shoot a robber off the deck of my ship, but now I take you in my arms and together we enter paradise."
His emails warmed and cheered me. He was encouraging and positive, and he made me laugh. He was my refuge. I used to log on every night after the kids were in bed knowing there’d be at least one email waiting for me, knowing that he would offer proper advice and if all else failed, offer to shoot all the Standard Issue Class A Bastards in my life.
He sent jokes, flirted outrageously and incessantly begged me on virtual bended knee to visit him.
"Stop wasting your time with those fuckers and come here. I promise to make you happy," he said. "No strings attached. Just come, I am rich man, I send you ticket."
So in the end I closed up the house in France and caught the bus. The twins were about 10 years old then, and I told myself that they were the main reason I went. They’d been ill all summer with a series of childish stomach upsets and I convinced myself that a Caribbean holiday would put them back on their feet.
Don’t bother telling me I’m crazy. I know that. It just seemed like a good idea at the time - I had itchy feet and, of course, I was already at least half in love with the Pirate. Not that I would admit it. I mean look what happened last time. Twins and no twin tub.
I’ll skip the flight, Philippa. You know what it was like, anyway. Long, boring, dehydrating and exhausting. Still, we weren’t delayed, no-one was sick and the boys enjoyed going off to the cockpit to meet the Captain. Yes, in those days you could still do that...
When we arrived at the airport - and no, I’m not going to identify any of the places I’m talking about - that would be madness - when we arrived in the Caribbean, the arrivals lounge was heaving with the usual mix of exhausted passengers jostling with taxi-drivers, families meeting travellers, lay-abouts, crooks, officials, rich bitches, foreign holiday makers, hawkers, madmen, nutters, and... well, us. Having collected our luggage (one battered suitcase that I’d borrowed from Nickie), hauled it onto a trolley and shoved our way through customs, I hadn’t the faintest idea where to go or what to do, so I just stood in the arrivals hall waiting to see what would happen.
The arrangement had been that the Pirate would meet us off the flight but, gazing at the mass of people writhing around us like eels in a fish tank, it was obvious that he hadn’t come.
I was stranded, I hadn’t a bean in my pocket, knew absolutely no-one, and felt sure that Air France would refuse to change the tickets and fly us straight home. Unless I could find a bar somewhere with a piano but no pianist, we would be doomed to stay in the airport for two whole weeks scrounging for leftovers in airport bins and sleeping on our beach towels behind the vending machines.
The boys were beginning to whine too, which made it worse. I lifted the hair off my shoulders and smiled encouragement at them. I’d nicked a substantial number of mini-bottles of wine off the trolley in the plane and they clanked comfortingly in my bag. I made some sort of joke to amuse the kids and wondered how long I could make my stolen wine last.
"Hey, you Camille?"
I turned my head and found myself looking at a man whose resemblance to the pictures he’d emailed was zip, zilch, nada. Non-existent.
The photos had shown a laughing brown face with flashing eyes and a mop of chestnut hair atop a strong bull neck and a massive, powerful torso. This man was pot-bellied, pallid and covered in liver spots. He was wearing a sweat-stained shirt, dreadful shorts and ancient espadrilles. His hair was greying and since the photo was taken it must have receded faster than the tide because there was hardly any of it left.
The twins shrank behind my skirt, asking, “Mummy, is this the Pirate?”
Blimey. Trust kids to spit it out un-chewed. But he was unfazed. His eyes flashed amusement at me and he ruffled the kids’ hair.
"That’s me. I’m the Pirate," he said looking straight through my eyes into my brain. "Not what you expected, huh?"
A seriously global understatement. After a year of chatting and flirting and being infatuated with a man who had talked, advised and joked his way into becoming my lifeline, I was horrified. He was so far from anything I’d expected, so ugly, so tatty and revolting. He didn’t even look clean.
The hair rose on my scalp. What the hell was I to do? I mean there I was, and there he was, and I just knew I couldn’t spend more than ten seconds in his company without being sick. So I did the bourgeois thing: denied it, claimed I was tired after the flight, apologised for being stupid, said I had a headache, we were just hungry...
He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. "I don-cair," he said. "Is no problem," and he seized the handle of the trolley. We followed him. Well, what else could we do? I mean, what else would you have done? And don’t give me any crap about credit cards or ringing Muthar. I didn’t have those options. I told you, Muma died. Anyway, the guy was just an old fat slob. He wouldn’t be a problem.
I grabbed the boys and hurried after him. As he surged through the automatic airport doors ahead of us, the August heat rose up like a hot sponge, flung itself at our faces and clung to our skins. It was late at night but there wasn’t a breath of air and within minutes we were drenched to the skin and sweating. Finding the car in the dark seemed to take an eternity, the night cracking as palm trees laboured to stay upright in the heat, and faces looming in and out of focus all around us. But finally he unlocked a dusty red Clio, flung the suitcase into the boot, and piled the boys into the back. We got in and sat side by side like yesterday’s sardines in a jacuzzi. He rammed the ignition key into the starter and twisted it impatiently.
The heat was intense, and even worse when the engine sputtered into life because it fanned hot air into our faces. I fumbled around to wind the window down.
"I’m so hot..."
"Wait for la fuckin cleem." His English was fractured, even more so than in his emails, and mixed up with bits of other languages, mainly Greek and French garnished with shreds of Italian. "La clim" is air conditioning and although it sounds weird to say it now, it was the first time I’d come across an air-conditioned car. You have to remember I’d spent ten years with no running hot water, cutting logs for the stove before I could start cooking, and wearing "un jogging" in bed over my pyjamas.
I fell in love instantly. No, not with Mr Vomit. Not even with the Caribbean or the bloody car. With "la clim". I could hardly believe that such luxury existed, such control over our personal environment. It made me want to laugh and laugh.
I gazed out of the window at scrub grass caught in the headlights, at a murky, sulky sky, great scuds of cloud lurking in front of a dull, moody moon. I gazed at any bloody thing so that I wouldn’t have to look at the pale plump hands strangling the steering wheel beside me. In his turn the Pirate kept up a prize-winning stream of muttered abuse and obscenity about the car, the roads, the heat and every other driver on the planet: no hesitation, no repetition, no deviation, and he kept it up for well over 20 minutes. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see by their wide-open eyes that the twins were deeply impressed.
The Pirate mangled his way down to a marina which looked like a Disney film set. The whole scene was lit by thousands of tiny glimmering fairy lights, the palm trees were cunningly floodlit, and the reflections danced gaily in the gentle waves. The buildings were covered in ice cream coloured clapboard (vanilla, strawberry and pistachio), the glittering water lapped at white stonework, and shiny chains looped into golden wooden posts to prevent you tumbling into the inky drink. Stunned, the boys trotted ahead with me calling feebly after them not to fall in.
"Leave them, give them some space," said the Pirate. "They’re okay."
He took my arm just above the elbow and steered me onto a terrace overlooking the water where tables were laid with flowers and candles and menus. We sat down opposite each other and I hid behind a menu. I didn’t agree that the boys were okay, teetering about on the edge of a bottomless pit, but short of starting a stand-up argument there wasn’t much I could do about it and in any case, within minutes the twins had come rushing back and clung round the table.
"Can we have chips?"
"Can we have ice-cream?"
"Can I have one of those, Mum?" pointing at a towering knicker-bocker glory being demolished at a neighbouring table.
"Er, I don’t know, I’ll see... perhaps if..."
"Yes, you have anything. Order what you like! Camille! Your fucking sons! Give them a break!"
Coming straight after his award-winning swear-fest in the car, they were instantly seduced and I had to swallow back a snappy retort. They looked so happy, their matching faces lit up with enthusiasm and joy, that it was impossible to argue. It was also impossible to correct his pronunciation of my name. Camilla, not Camille pronounced the French way. Milly if you insist, but absolutely definitely not Cam-mee. It smacks of soap scum to me.
Meanwhile the Pirate had ordered mountains of food. Shellfish and salad and chips and chicken wings and milk shakes and a dish of stewed vegetables and a bottle of chilled white wine. Don’t ask me what it was, I know nothing about wine, but it was wonderful: dry, cold, light, almost perfumed, and incredibly intoxicating.
What the hell. The boys’ eyes lit up, they could barely contain themselves when they saw all this food being loaded on to the table. They sat there gazing at the dishes and shooting incredulous glances at me - and the Pirate got cross again. He’s a bad-tempered man.
"Well, what you doing? Mangez! Eat! For Christsake, Camille, what you been feeding dees piccolo uomini? You do feed them don’t you? Hey, you, have some chicken, put your fork down, eat with your fingers, and you, whatsyername, take chips!" He piled their plates up and turned to me, waving the serving spoons like cutlasses.
"And you. You eat, too. You too fuckin thin," he complained.
So we ate. And drank, and ate more. In fact I think he was secretly impressed by our ability to dispose of all food within our reach. Not that he showed it. He was more irritable than anything else, hectoring and lecturing on child welfare and shouting at the staff for more fried fish, more bread, more ice cream, more chocolate sauce, and take this away they don-lie-kit.
Drugged with excess calories, knocked out by a long haul flight and ten gallons of wine... don’t ask me what happened next. Did he pay that bill or did he slam an axe into the table before we left? Or was it more of a wink and a handshake? I don’t know. He doesn’t pay restaurant bills, I can tell you that much. Not in cash, at the time, I mean. If he pays them at all, he pays them off in kind; in favours, in protection, in all sorts of nefarious ways. Even now, I’m not entirely clear about all his dealings. The loan of the Clio was definitely a favour though, as were our hotel rooms.
They were air conditioned too, and we had a marble bathroom. Our room had two double beds in it; one for me, one for the boys. He had a room somewhere else. Don’t ask me where. Probably in an even posher bit of the hotel - because although I’d never seen such luxury in my entire life at that time, for the Caribbean it was just the standard stuff. You know, tourist hotel with balcony and bathroom. All these places have air conditioning and marble bathrooms. A far cry from the flophouses, fleapits and theatrical digs of my childhood.
I woke up in the morning with the most sinister headache. The boys were sprawled fully dressed but fast asleep across their double bed, and through the thin filmy white curtains was a breath-taking view of an emerald sea sparkling beyond a pale gold beach surrounded by flowers, lawns and palm trees. Frankly I could hardly believe my eyes. After years of looking out at glowering mountains, rain clouds and muddy piles of firewood needing to be chopped, the whole paradise scenario took my breath away. I rolled over and groped for my bag desperately seeking painkillers, and the boys woke up.
They didn’t have indigestion, tummy-ache or sinister hangovers. They weren’t even tired. Jetlag has always been unknown to them. They still don’t suffer from it and they’re constantly on and off long-haul flights. Luckily they're just like my father.
Anyway, I was knackered, disorientated, over-heated and generally functioning on about one cylinder. Everyone else was insanely cheerful. There was swimming in a kidney-shaped pool, a nauseating buffet breakfast including an entire plastic lobster, several all too real roast hams, a lake of exotic fruit juice and a Cheshire Cat chef dishing up anaemic fried eggs on toast.
The whole thing was laid out in a room the size of a football pitch. The boys made a spirited attempt to clear the entire buffet whilst the Pirate drank several large Pernods and ordered vast quantities of melon ice cream, which he then didn’t eat. ("No, take it off! They don-lie-kit!")
I swallowed more painkillers, stirred a muddy cup of tea and reminded myself to breathe in and out. The heat was intense, the light was blinding and the sight of so much food sitting on chafing dishes gently drying up reminded me of Nickie sitting at her kitchen table staring at a pile of wonky black carrots the day the banks went on strike and there was nothing left to eat and no gas to cook it on either.
Unlike me, Nickie had originally brought a man to France with her - not her husband, she’d already mislaid him somewhere - but the father of her kids. Trouble was, he pissed off to Hong Kong, ostensibly on a contract to sort out Toyota’s computers but in reality to ram coke up his nose and shag a grisly selection of Oriental prostitutes.
He used to come back to France from time to time; broke, exhausted and bearing gifts in the shape of head lice or genital infections. Naturally his fantastic earnings never made it back to Europe. Or if they did, Nickie never saw them. And eventually he pissed off completely. There wasn’t much she could do about it.
Like me, she didn’t have the cash to go back to the UK even if she could have shoved her pride far enough down her gullet to do it. So she patched up the ceilings, painted abstracts, brought her kids up and talked to her dog, a black labrador called Max. Perhaps he was an Internet man substitute?
“Hey! Camille! Eat! Here, eat eggs!” The Pirate was making a spirited attempt to push a plate of fried eggs in front of me. I bared my teeth at him, smiled grimly and shook my throbbing head. Thank God, he desisted.
Perhaps he realised how fragile I was, because after breakfast the boys were taken outside to swim in the pool under the supervision of a cheery hotel play-leader while I slept in the blissful luxury of our air-conditioned room. The Pirate disappeared - presumably to blackmail someone into giving us a flight.
Because oh no. The journey wasn’t over. This large island with its tarmac roads, its phones and hotels, its air conditioning, hot water, acres of green lawn... this wasn’t our destination. Our immediate destination was an airstrip. Not the international airport of the night before, but a dusty airstrip staffed by one uniformed black hunk armed with a sub-machine gun, and inhabited by a collection of exhausted people in charge of vast amounts of shopping: a woman with a fridge in a crate, another with several suitcases containing rusty tins of Heinz soup (I know because Mr Uniform made her open the cases up) and a man in charge of a dodgy-looking teenager. There was a quantity of barbed wire, a small hut for shade, a tap that didn’t work and a selection of posters announcing things like "Ben Ja Shoe - We are caring always for your gentle feet - always!"
The Pirate left us there while he sat talking to a guy in a large black Ford, and then finally returned saying he’d cleared our visa problems, and could he have our passports. Visa problems? What visa problems? But we didn’t need visas. Well, that was wrong. We did need visas, because we were going to fly down to a tiny island which was officially in another country and then we would get in his speedboat and whiz out to his Pirate’s ship.
I handed over the passports.
I know, I know, Philippa. You’d have whipped a handy mobile out of your bag and called Muthar or Gus, or someone. Or run a quick credit card check, or called a taxi and high tailed it to the nearest champagne bar or nail salon. Or possibly to the nearest Embassy. Well, I didn’t do any of that stuff. Frankly, I hardly thought twice. I just handed our passports over. How was I to know I’d never see them again?
All I thought was that the sooner we were on a plane, the sooner we’d be back in an air-conditioned environment. I was tired, and not just from the effects of a trans-Atlantic flight, I was tired from ten years of struggling alone; from the boredom and repetition of endlessly hauling ash, changing nappies, buttering soldiers, boiling eggs, counting centimes, working nights, attempting to cook over a wood-fuelled stove, having no running hot water, and making sure it all seemed like a laugh to the boys. I don’t mean that exactly. I mean, living in France was a laugh but I was knackered. Exhausted to the pit of my stomach. All I wanted was air-conditioning, therefore I handed our passports over so that we could get in the plane. Because planes are air-conditioned.
How wrong can you get? The plane seated six, and must have been built in about 1935. There were two seats in the cockpit and four more faded yellow velvet seats facing each other in the back, with little ashtrays in the arm rests and rusty seat belts. You could have parked the whole thing inside a phone box and still have had room to throw a party. And as for air-conditioning, what do you need that for, when the bloody plane isn’t airtight in the first place and freezing cold air blows in from the cracks around the doors? Doors which don’t close properly. Jesus Christ.
The pilot was pissed and the doors had to be fastened with a piece of wire twisted round the missing lock. The boys were wildly excited. We were all clearly doomed to die in this terrible old crate and, although death by falling out of an antique plane hadn’t occurred to me before, I huddled back into the dull gold velvet and wondered whether it wouldn’t be easier to bypass the gut-wrenching suspense and simply jump into the spinning propellers.
The Pirate sat up front beside the pilot and on the spare seat beside me sat a box, which I later found out contained most of the food we had failed to consume at breakfast. (The Pirate fed it to the tourists on one of his cruise boats the next day. Yes, of course with the exception of the melon sorbet. He’s not a total nutter - oh God, what am I saying? He is.)
I know you’re still wondering why I insist on calling him the Pirate - especially as his looks had nothing in common with one and he didn’t have a parrot. (Although of course, he did send me one. But that was later. A lot later.) But no, he doesn’t sail the seven seas with a flintlock in his belt, heaving to and attacking other ships. I don’t think he’s ever keelhauled anyone either, or made them walk the plank. And as for lashing people to the mast, well I have to admit, that turned out to be my speciality. But he is a Pirate. He just is!
It’s his attitude, his approach to life. I mean, the only reason he doesn’t board other ships is because he doesn’t feel like it. But take that day, for example. I mean, he simply couldn’t have bought tickets on the regular flight. In financial and practical terms he could have of course, but emotionally he absolutely could not have done it. That would have meant getting to an airport on time two days running, and that was simply inadmissible.
"Fuck the bastards. Why should I leave when they say on a paper I have to leave? I’ll fucking leave when I wanna fucking leave. Anyway, this guy owes me a favour, so why should I go on the regular flight?"
I understood what he meant. Apart from anything else, I expect BA would have chucked his box of leftovers onto the runway.
And then there was his equally uncompromising approach to visas, taxes, licences, banks, governments, laws, officials, customs, conventions, socially accepted behaviour, women, dogs, meals, and business... but that wasn’t all. He stole, he smuggled, he dealt with criminals and he kidnapped me. And if that doesn’t make him a pirate, then what does?
Forget the First World. Forget police stations, phones, credit cards, consuls, embassies, letters, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of modern life over here in Western Europe. Forget zero tolerance, law and order, judicial systems and solicitor’s advice. I didn’t know it then, but when I got into that plane I stepped into another world.
I stepped into a world where personal contacts count for more than civil status, where locals leave Europeans alone for fear of reprisals, where the Pirate had more money and therefore more control than anyone else, and where the nearest lawyer was 80kms and a three-hour boat ride away. I stepped into a world where my pale skin would get me into any luxy bar I fancied, but would also mark me out as the Pirate’s property and therefore unapproachable, untouchable. Certainly not someone you could befriend or help. Not that I knew it then. Perhaps just as well.
I concentrated on making the boys sit down, and on doing up their seat belts (probably the first time they’d been used since 1945). Then I concentrated on ignoring the incredible noise the plane made, the terrifying vibrations and the sight of the pilot swigging yet more beer from a bottle as he shouted jokes at the Pirate who was counting a large roll of American dollars.
The flight wasn’t long, just over an hour, thank God, and our destination soon jiggled into sight over the edge of a large green mountain. We floundered over the ridges, swooped above a desiccated valley towards a golden beach, tottered across a series of corrugated iron shacks, wobbled down over a concrete bunker and flopped onto the landing strip only to accelerate towards a bed of sharp rocks tumbling into the sea. I closed my eyes.
"Mummy, we’re here! Look, look! Mummy, open your eyes! We’re safe! It’s all right, Mummy!"
The pilot was already out of the plane and embracing a dusky lovely. The Pirate meantime was supervising the removal of his cardboard box and Nickie’s suitcase. (He’s way too fat to carry anything himself, and rarely even bothers to walk anywhere.) Sweat was rolling down his pulpy face as the twins followed him, nervously asking which of the ships they’d seen in the bay was his.
But they didn’t bother him, actually. He’s good with kids. He pointed his boat out and rolled off towards the concrete bunker with a boy hanging from each hand and me trailing along behind them feeling like a camel.
Oh, I don’t know, Philippa! I just felt like a camel. You know: bad tempered, flat-footed, shaggy and smelly, with stinky breath, foul yellow teeth and a definite hump. Don’t you ever feel... no. Oh well.
The island was small with only one main village huddled round the southern bay. It had a large quay at one end, various smaller jetties all along it and the airstrip where we landed was at the other end of the bay just below a point of land sticking out into the sea. Backing onto the bay were tangles of small rust-red shacks surrounding small cement houses with faded paint, large verandas and windows with no glass in them. The only area that looked at all built up was over towards the quay where there was a complex of low white buildings.
Thinking back on it, the Pirate was daunted. He was. I know he was, because he didn’t shout or rant. He sorted the officials out, sent the luggage off to the boat and took us to a restaurant in the complex. It was run by an efficient Frenchwoman called Marie-Rose, and this time there was no hectoring, no bullying, no raving about child-care. I ordered what I wanted and dealt with the boys while he sat and watched. There were no demands for more ice cream, no dizzying orders of fried fish or vegetable stew.
We ate steaks with haricots verts and had fruit afterwards. He drank Pernod. I drank two glasses of red wine and took comfort in noticing that the bottle had come from our departement in France. A link with home, with sanity and normality.
Of course, I now know that this restraint on his part was a warning sign. But at the time I just thought that he was more relaxed on his home territory, assumed that he had a running tab at the restaurant and that his progress in speedboats was always inclined to be stately, because he was after all just an old guy. Ha!
Oh yes, you have to have a speedboat here. Well, some sort of little boat, anyway. The Pirate has a large selection and drives them all at top speed. Always. Everywhere. Apart from that one night.
Cafes and restaurants shelter under the palm trees all along the seashore, and although a rough track winds along behind them, the easiest way to get around is by boat because most of the bars have little jetties where you can moor a speedboat or a dinghy.
So after supper we walked down the jetty, climbed into the Venus, and he headed out slowly across the bay towards his ship. A great creaking monster lurking in the moonlight with two large masts, a quantity of varnished decking, and ropes everywhere. As we drew alongside it, the Pirate cut the engine and stood up so that he could throw a rope onto the small landing stage and ladder that was lashed to the side of the ship.
Wobbling and squeaking with delicious fright, the boys climbed up the ladder croaking "cool", with me behind them clucking "don’t fall in", and the Pirate biting his tongue. Normally that sort of maternal concern thing drives him totally spanner. You know, so rigid and silver-grey with fury that his mouth gapes open. But he behaved himself, merely showing us our cabins, and checking that Nickie’s suitcase was already neatly stowed away and our belongings were stacked into lockers.
I was far too tired and shell-shocked to notice anything. I had no idea of the time, I just wanted some peace and quiet. So I put the boys to bed in their little cabin and amazingly they didn’t complain. They didn’t even grumble. They just went, and within minutes they were asleep in their berths.
The inside of the boat was all made of varnished wood. You came down the stairs into a small room - which I soon learnt to call a large galley - with wooden kitchen units built in down one side, a large table bolted to the floor in the centre with fixed benches either side of it and lockers forming a sofa opposite the kitchen units. Under the stairs was a pair of outsize American fridges, and opposite was a small door leading to our cabins and bathroom, tucked inside the prow of the boat. Behind the stairs was a second door, this one leading to a workshop, a shower and a large space where the Pirate lounged on his bed and watched pornographic videos.
Up on the deck there were curious moon shapes nailed to the deck to catch rainwater, and squares of canvas rigged up to provide shade for the teak table and chairs set out more or less above our cabins. I sat there and gazed at the celestial lightshow.
The Pirate sat and stared at me as I stared at the moon, and after a while I stared at him and he stared at the moon, and then we stared at each other, and then I said "I’m going to bed" and he smiled at me, and I was about to try and tell him that he wasn’t... that I wasn’t... but I was too tired. So I just went, and he just let me go.
Which was truly bizarre, although I didn't think so then.