It was different in the morning. I was refreshed from sleeping round the clock, there was a breeze wafting through my cabin, and when I smelt coffee I suddenly realised my good luck. Out of the blue, undeserved, un-earned, unpaid for... I was on holiday. Oh, thank God!
Joy flooded my veins and I stretched luxuriously. Sunlight was flooding into the cabin through a porthole just above my double bunk. Directly above me was another single bunk. Beside me was a narrow space and a row of locker doors, one of which opened to reveal a small hand basin. I leapt out of bed. Well, no I didn’t really. I did my usual early-morning imitation of a duck with stomach-ache and staggered to my feet quacking softly.
The cabin was tiny. Just about big enough for the small double bed I’d slept on, and the door to the twins’ cabin. I pulled on a swimsuit and a pair of shorts, and went to see if the boys were still alive. I always have to check that they haven’t died in their sleep. Mad, I know but I’d done it every night and every morning for ten years by then, and I still do it now. They were sleeping soundly.
Scratching my tousled hair and yawning, I went to investigate the smell of coffee. But it wasn’t the Pirate rattling the pots and pans in the kitchen. It was a shiny-faced black girl with strong capable arms and a friendly smile.
"Hello there!" she beamed. "Welcome to the Sun!"
I winced and managed some sort of grimace. "Hi," I croaked. "Nice to meet you."
Bettina was one of a band of young men and women the Pirate called "pliroma" - crew. They weren’t really sailors. I don’t suppose any of them could actually handle a boat. They were just locals he employed to clean up, run errands and generally skivvy around the place. There wasn’t much work for locals there, he paid better than most, and if he liked someone he would favour their family when looking for new crew, so the pliroma were hard nosed in their loyalty to him.
No, I’m not saying they’d put their lives on the line for him. Nothing so extreme. But unless you could fish out a better deal than the Pirate, they would do what he wanted them to do, and you could plead and beg, explain, cajole and blackmail to your heart’s content. I know because in my time I’ve tried all those things and none of them worked. They still all obeyed the man they called The Boss.
Not that I knew that then. I just pulled up short at the sight of an unknown woman wiping the table. I found out later that the Pirate gets up with the dawn most days and spends a couple of hours in his office while it’s still relatively cool. Don’t ask me what he does there. I don’t know. Beheads enemies, dodges officialdom, makes other pirates squirm, and shouts "ahoy me hearties" down the phone, I expect.
Bettina poured coffee and put sugar and tinned milk out. Then she picked up the radio, set the call signal and started repeating, "Sun Boat to Office, Sun Boat to Office." Everyone uses short wave radio over there. It’s cheap, it’s reliable and it works. It’s also incredibly public because even when you’ve moved off the call frequency, which you do the minute you’ve made contact with whoever you’re calling, anyone can tune in and listen to you.
Anyway, she called the office while I sipped coffee and gathered from the conversation that she wasn’t a stray wife, and then the twins emerged from their cabin demanding breakfast.
"It’s coming, my lambs!" said Bettina. "The Captain is sending Tommy over with bread for you. Do you want to come up and watch out for him?"
They scrambled upstairs at her heels and launched themselves happily at the railings to watch Tommy arrive, which he did in style, swooping out from the port in a speedboat which sent a wing of spray into our faces as he slewed the boat sideways and drifted in alongside the Sun.
Tommy leapt up the ladder with a plastic bag in one hand and the mooring rope in the other, tossed the bag to the twins, threw a kiss at Bettina and then slid off down the ladder into the throbbing speedboat.
"Oh, can’t we go ashore?" I asked, and Tommy revved the engine like crazy and shot off towards the port.
"No. The Captain says you staying here, eating breakfast. He’s coming soon. He’s busy now."
Well no, Philippa, I didn’t think anything of it. It seemed utterly reasonable to me. Why on earth would anyone think "Whoops, here we go, I’m being kidnapped"? I mean, it’s not the sort of thing you think of. And no, I didn’t remember my passport, I didn’t check my bag, I didn’t demand to see the British Ambassador. Give me a break. I was starving. I went down to the galley to inspect the contents of the carrier bags.
There were pains au chocolat, croissants, French bread and two tubes of factor 100 sun cream. Bettina refused all help from me. "No. The Captain says you relaxing," she smiled, and bustled about capably producing hard boiled eggs, butter, jam, and juice from the fridge. It was already getting suffocatingly hot and sweaty in the galley, but she didn’t seem to notice either the temperature or the humidity.
"You young men want to eat up on the deck?" she asked the twins, who were already stuffing themselves with pains au chocolat. Muffled yelps of "cool", choking noises, and showers of crumbs made her laugh.
"You’re like my boys. I got four. All eating like horses. Come on."
We took everything up on deck and ate round the wooden table which was set out under the shade of a white canvas awning. I dipped bits of croissant into my coffee, Bettina drank juice and the boys scoffed the rest as we gazed at the shoreline. The sea was a patchwork of the most fantastic colours; turquoise, aqua-marine, azure, sparkling with pale emeralds, sapphires and diamonds and dotted with beautiful little sail boats. The beaches looked like golden frills, the buildings like bright embroidery squares, and the lush green inland hills like Never-never Land. The sky was absolutely clear and blue, and the air was soft and gentle on our skin.
Bettina finally out-cooked the boys by producing more boiled eggs than even they could eat, and then she called the Pirate on the radio and he came back and took us swimming at one of the beaches.
We went in his speedboat, the Venus, this time driving at his normal speed of full steam ahead, banging across the wavetops with our eyes full of spray. The beach was fine pale gold sand, scattered with shards of black palm leaves and lapped by little lacy waves as warm as bath water. I’d never been in such warm sea before. It was shallow and so transparent that I could see little fish nibbling at the chipped nail varnish on my toes. The boys were ecstatic, and the Pirate indulgently promised to buy them goggles so they could swim underwater.
Then we splashed back out to the speedboat and banged off to another island for lunch in a ritzy bar. And I do mean ritzy. The island we went to that day is privately owned and the whole place is one great big holiday resort. The sand there is combed twice a day so there are no sharp bits of palm tree in it, and the shells have all been polished gleaming pink, and there are shaded wooden walkways along the beach so you don’t burn your feet, and because the island is small and doesn’t have mountains inland, you can stroll about the gardens admiring the bowers and arbours and shady seats. There are various beach bars too, all tastefully built to look native, but all actually equipped with electric lights, fridges, freezers, and ice-machines.
The restaurant was in the centre of the gardens, built on stilts so that it seemed like a tree house. There was a breathtaking view out over the sea and you could see all the neighbouring islands, including ours. The food was mainly Italian but there were also some French dishes on the menu and we ate like pigs. The Pirate obviously knew the place well and ordered by just nodding at the waiter. We had everything: pasta, pizza, fish, veal in cream sauce, sauté potatoes, salad, fruit, ice cream and real cappuccinos. We drank cocktails out of coconut shells, and the Pirate drank gallons of Pernod and massacred a boiled egg.
Then we wandered down through the gardens again and the Pirate took the boys into a shop on the beach, and bought them snorkels and goggles and flippers, and told me I was a stupid woman when I started whittering about not spoiling them.
"It’s hardly worth it just for two weeks," I said. "They can share a set."
"Shut up!" he snapped and glared at me furiously.
The twins stopped for a second then, their faces worried and their pleasure spoilt. The Pirate looked at them and sighed.
"Come on," he said, in a softer voice. "I jus-wan-ter buy them a present. Whas-wrong-wi-dat?"
"Nothing," I said and smiled stiffly.
"You know," he said confidentially to the boys, putting his arms round their shoulders, "Your mother is a fine woman, but she don-understand men. This is a man thing. The sea is no fun without proper equipment, right?" And he pulled a mad face at us and made the twins laugh. I shook my head at him, but I smiled at the same time because I couldn’t bear to spoil things for my boys. I’d just have to sort it out with the Pirate later, when they weren't listening.
So the twins got their snorkels and spent the afternoon splashing about in the sea while the Pirate and I sprawled on sun beds in the shade and I tried to talk sense to the man.
"Look, I haven’t got the money to buy them stuff like this. I know you’re only being kind, but if they get used to having anything they want, it’s going to be a nightmare when we get home. I mean, this isn’t..."
"I never kind. I like to buy them tings. Nice boys. I got no boys. I only got girls. And they not stupid, they know I got money and you got nothing. Give them a break, Camille! Look at them, they happy now. So you be happy too. Relax! Here, throw that orange juice away, I get you a proper drink!"
I gave it up. I was full and hot and sleepy and I drifted into a kind of torpor where I could still hear the water splashing and feel the sun warm on my skin, but I was too far gone to speak or keep my eyes open. So in spite of myself, I relaxed. For the first time in nearly ten years, I simply let it all go. The boys were happy and safe, we had all eaten a massive lunch, and if anything went wrong with the house in France while we were away - if the roof blew off, or the windows started leaking again - I wouldn’t know about it for another fortnight. I just lay there and let the sensation of total well-being flood through me.
He took the boys off for ice creams later on and I didn’t protest, not even when they came back with huge polished conch shells and new t-shirts as well. I just smiled lazily and reminded them to say thank you. The Pirate beamed. That was all he wanted. Big smiles all round.
It was the start of the holiday of a lifetime. We slept, we ate, we swam, we drank, we slept again and sometimes we managed to swim and eat simultaneously - slipping into the clear turquoise water with a sandwich in one hand and a drink in the other. We saw the dolphins, fed the nursery sharks, visited islands, collected shells, ate at outdoor barbecue restaurants, walked along unimaginably beautiful beaches and had beads plaited into our hair. Well I did. The boys didn’t, although their hair was long enough at that time, but they’d just got to the stage of being defensive about their nascent masculinity. Naturally the Pirate didn’t have enough hair to make a plait possible. But he laughed at mine and said it was sexy.
"You know, you very sexy woman. You too thin, you too pale, you stiff like a board but I know what is inside, and I gonna let it out!"
Thinking about it later as I gazed at myself in the mirror, I wondered if he was right. I was nearly 40 and my eyes looked as faded as my hair. In spite of being a natural blonde, I’ve never been beautiful. My skin has always been too sensitive, too prone to break out in ugly red blotches, and although my eyes aren’t small, they don’t show up because they aren’t a proper colour. They’re just puddles of London rainwater.
But I used to be the sort of girl that people thought was pretty because she was always larking about, the sort of girl people called a madcap, and described as bouncy and full of personality. Years ago. Years ago when I regularly dyed my eyelashes and curled my hair and soothed the blotches out of my skin with expensive face creams. That girl had been buried for ten years under the weight of responsibility for two kids; the endless, useless attempts to do the right thing, to be a proper mother. I wondered if the Pirate was right, and that other younger me was still lurking inside, just biding her time to re-emerge.
He wallowed in the sea with us, shouting, "I take holiday too! Hey, Bettina, when I last go swimming?"
"I dunno, Boss!" shouted Bettina from the beach where she was showing the boys how to bait fishing rods.
He was a surprisingly strong swimmer. In fact, he was surprisingly strong all round. You know, Philippa... more muscles than I’d thought, what with the sweaty shirt and all. He had skinny, wiry sticks of legs with tough stringy calf muscles bulging out of them, and a bloated belly, but he had this great barrel chest and huge powerful arms. No tattoos. Said they would mark him out, make him too easily identifiable. As if without them, he would fade into the crowd!
He disdained sun creams and simply got burnt. It didn’t seem to bother him. Thick skinned. I watched as his skin turned furiously red and peeled off, revealing an even tan underneath. For myself I was doomed to swimming in t-shirts and hovering in the shade, endlessly applying sun cream. I plastered the boys with every skin product that came to hand and miraculously they developed smooth toasty suntans. But they didn’t have my pale skin in the first place. And in the end even I got a decent tan. As you noticed, of course.
But anyway, the point is, the Pirate seemed to morph into something far less innocuous than a little old tubby-tot as that first week went on. The liver spots joined up as he tanned, the fat solidified and although no, he didn’t miraculously grow a thick head of black hair, he did somehow gain in stature and I don’t know... he just seemed less old and past it and more virile and er, well, up for it.
The truth is, of course, that with our arrival his habits changed. He spent more time outside, did more exercise, ate better meals and, although he seemed to be swigging Pernod down like water, according to Marie-Rose he had drastically cut back on his drinking. So of course he began to look better. He would probably tell you that I started to look better too. He always said I looked ill when I arrived: thin, pale and harassed.
On his own turf he didn’t bother with proper clothes. He wore black swimming shorts all the time, flinging a white linen shirt over them if he felt the need to dress up. He didn’t look dirty any more because we swam all the time and, in the water at least, he was a nice little mover. In fact I think he must be genetically at least 50% shark. He swam like one anyway, and being in the water made his eyes gleam like one.
What can I say? It’s boring, swimming and sleeping all day. Restaurants get boring too, especially when you go to the same two all the time, and we had to go to the same two all the time because all the others were closed out of season. Apart from them, there was a smattering of bars, a handful of shacks selling dusty watermelons and the small complex of low whitewashed concrete buildings which, apart from Marie-Rose’s bar, housed a few little offices, a tourist centre, a yachting shop and the Pirate’s office. This was one room which opened off a small courtyard to the side of Marie-Rose’s bar. Running at right angles to the other buildings, the Pirate’s lair had two windows which looked out through strong protective bars across the bay.
The bare walls inside were painted white, there were work surfaces and bar stools all along the window side of the room and a large heavy dark wooden desk near the door with an ancient teak swivel chair. Opposite the door was another smaller door, guarded by a heavy barred gate, opening onto a short path made of thick paving slabs set into the hard earth which led to a lavatory. Outside, but private nevertheless, protected by high walls.
Inside there was a computer, a fax machine, a photocopier, a series of telephones and tele-printers, a radio, even an old telex machine, and under the work surfaces were a set of heavy grey filing cabinets. A row of dark wooden cupboards had been built into the back wall and opposite the windows was a grey metal cupboard containing office supplies. The whole place was stacked with papers, and the lino floor was cluttered with cardboard boxes. He ran various businesses from that office; day cruises on the catamarans, yacht charters and some sort of t-shirt empire. You know all those tacky t-shirts you get in the Caribbean proclaiming "No problem!" and "Sex, sun, sand and WEED - Enjoy!" - most of them are imported by the Pirate, and the ones that aren’t have paid his taxes on their journeys.
And he flirted. I mean, you know... for God’s sake! I’m not going to tell you all the gruesome details. Look, the boys were in paradise and that was the biggest relief of my life.
The thing is, Philippa, as a mother I was pretty crap, I admit it. I was totally unprepared, I had no experience of kids and asking Harriet wouldn't have done me any good. She and Daniel take my half-siblings on tour with a Russian nanny, for Christ’s sake. A male one. (She's a percussionist, did I tell you that?)
As for Muma, well... she wasn't a musician but she toted me everywhere with Daniel, and although she wasn't creative, she wasn't practical either. I mean, to her mothering meant insisting, however crummy the hotel or the restaurant, that I should be supplied with live yoghurt. She thought it prevented infections, bless her. She made me eat barrels of the bloody stuff. So what do you expect?
I can speak loads of languages badly, I can manage train stations, artistic temperament and rehearsal rooms, but I can’t cook to save my life, I’m hopeless at making forts out of washing up bottles, I can’t change a plug let alone a nappy, and I hate football.
The only maternal instinct I had was worry, and I’d done so much of it that I’d turned myself into a nervous wreck, endlessly wanting the boys to stay inside with Maman. I could see what I was doing, but I didn’t know how to stop. It was the only way I had of loving them. But after the first two days, the Pirate was having none of it.
"You good mother, but you worry too fuckin’ much," he announced. "You makem frightened. Leave em alone. Doe-skids is fine! Give em some freedom!"
I knew he was right. The boys had long outgrown my Beatrix Potter smother-love. They desperately needed to strike out on their own, have adventures, hang out with other boys, stand on their own two feet. Well, four feet. If you see what I mean... Anyway, the Pirate broke the nursery door down and they escaped into boy paradise.
They went fishing, swimming and sailing with Bettina’s boys. They had unlimited ice cream, they messed about on the beach, they went for rides on an old scooter. I watched them growing in confidence and self-assurance daily, and had to admit that they didn’t need me clucking at their heels. So after the first day or so, I let Bettina take charge of them. Which left me with nothing to do. Except hang out with the Pirate.
And he looked after me. He took me places, bought me little gifts - beaded bracelets, a pair of jewelled flip flops, a gold heart on a chain... he smiled at my jokes, met my eye when I was amused, he understood exactly what I meant, noticed when I was tired, and let me sleep for hours without ever once bitching that I’d slept too long. He thought of little things like wanting a glass of water first thing in the morning, like not sitting with the sun in my eyes, like protecting my dry white skin.
He rubbed sun cream in slowly and gently. He handed me in and out of boats, looked me in the eye over every drink, he flattered, cajoled and complimented me at every turn, he showed me little things like turtle tracks and how to tie knots, demonstrating them round my arm.
"I like to tie you up and keep you here," he said, tightening a reef knot round my wrist, and I laughed, pleased to be the object of so much attention. "I wanna look after you. Make you happy," he said, gazing into my eyes soulfully. Not original perhaps, but 100% effective.
In spite of myself, my heart hammered. But I’d heard it before from the boys’ father, and look where that got me. Look where it got Nickie and Fiona. An endlessly unfolding drama of infidelity, pregnancy, passion, childbirth and poverty. We’d none of us had ever had any truck with furniture polish, Bizzy Lizzies and returning library books on time - we’d always been far too busy struggling to make meals out of half a tin of black olives and two mouldy onions...
Believing sweet nothings had simply got us into what Daniel called The B&P Club. B for barefoot. P for pregnant. (That was one of his jokes, cracked in a phone call from Sydney where he was supervising the digital re-mastering and re-release of his 1963 mega-hit ‘Sax on the Sofa’. Apparently it had become a cult smash Down Under.)
Ten years down the road, I was determined not to fall into the same trap. So when my pulse raced because the Pirate smiled tenderly into my eyes, I reminded myself firmly that he just wanted to get me into bed. He just wants to get your knickers off, I warned myself.
It didn’t take long. His experience was so much more than mine, in spite of my sophisticated globe-trotting upbringing, that it was inevitable I suppose. And to be honest I’d probably have fallen into his bed a lot sooner if he’d wanted me to. But he took his time, savouring my seduction in the same way that he savoured any of his take-over bids.
No, I didn’t fancy him. No, he wasn’t attractive. But he wasn’t a rapist if that’s what you’re thinking. Just an expert seducer. An expert on women’s bodies. He must have shagged everything under the sun to get the experience he’s got. I’ve never been to bed with anything like it. There’s no point in resisting. If you say "don’t touch me" he shrugs.
"I only putta crema. You burnin otherwise. Why so tense? Relax. I don-trape you."
It was true, he was only rubbing my back. So I let him rub my shoulders, let him brush my hair, caress my cheek, and fell into a sort of blissful coma, like a cat. "Hey, wass this? Tay-kit-off, I massage you..."
I let him take my top off. I didn’t want him, I didn’t fancy him, I told myself. But I wanted the sensation of hands on my back. So I let him take my top off. And he kept his hands on my back. No wandering. I was lulled, if you like.
Oh all right, since you ask. It was like shagging a combine harvester. No, I don’t suppose you’ve ever... no. Well, imagine being in bed with a steam roller then. Massive, slow-moving and totally inevitable. And covered with liver spots. Yes, I went to bed with him. What else can I say? I mean yes, he was short, fat and greying. Yes, his skin was red, peeling, coated in salt crystals and his hair was the texture of wire wool. Yes. All that. But he was also the most sensuous man I’d ever met.
Sitting on the deck, he was massaging my shoulders one night, when slowly and softly he bent his head and kissed my neck. His lips lingered there, and I could feel his breath on my skin. His hands tightened on mine and pins and needles ran down my spine. I couldn’t move, I could hardly breathe for God’s sake. I couldn’t run away or push him off. I couldn’t even speak, the whole thing was so erotic. The best I could do was just sit there attempting to pretend that nothing was happening.
Then his hands started wandering. (Such self-control, not to have done it before.) They wandered all over; he hauled me into his arms; kissed me dark and strong on the mouth. He dragged me to my feet and spell-bound I let him lead me down the stairway and kiss me again, holding my body hard against his own. Then he pulled me into his pit with the salty sheets, the oily bits of engine and the pornographic videos.
He didn’t say he loved me or anything. He didn’t promise me the moon or the stars. He just seduced me plain and simple, and I liked him the better for it. I’d never have believed him if he’d started on the old lurve-stuff, but I believed in random male lust. I could even admit to a bit of random female lust. So I let it all happen in the most passive way. Except one thing. When I felt sleep slipping into the soft, twisted sheets alongside us, seducing me with gentle caresses, I left him. I didn’t want the boys asking awkward questions.
And that was it, really. I suppose I could have turned back, even then. But I didn’t. I’d been too long on my own, spent too many nights curled up alone. So I closed my eyes. The days slid by: he claimed to have changed the dates of our tickets, and we went on with the pretence that him paying for everything was just a loan and that I would change my money in one go and pay him back just before I left. Two weeks turned into a month and I sent Nickie a postcard saying not to worry, that I was in heaven or something very close to it, that I’d be back soon and bring her some shells.
The Pirate was triumphant, taking me around everywhere, introducing me to everyone, always with his hands on my waist or my shoulder, or gripping my thigh or my upper arm with his podgy fists.
"Jealous? You fucking should be!" he would declare to other men. "Have a drink!"
I laughed. I felt great. I looked great. My poor red skin was evenly tanned, my hair was streaked golden from the sun, my eyes were beginning to sparkle again. The tiredness was easing, and my sense of humour was returning. Looking in the mirror I told myself that it was amazing what a good bulldozering could do for a girl, and I could just imagine Fiona rolling her eyes: "Told you so!"
The thought of Fiona made me laugh. She is so crazy, she even makes me look conventional. You know at one time she had this poetic tumble-down mazet, miles off the road, surrounded by acres of useless, overgrown land. The place was a mess, of course, undecorated, full of cardboard boxes and dirty clothes, but full of potential and possibilities. Fiona was living off the land. This meant scrubbing about with a camping gaz cooker and brackish water from her well until she got pissed off, when she would hitch a lift into town and raid her well-stocked bank account for enough cash to buy take-away pizza and beer for all the layabouts in the local bar.
Then the whole house burned down. I forget the details of it now, but I’m sure there was a party involved and rumour has it that the fire was started by a stray cigarette paper. Or was it a runaway candle? Anyway, the point is, the whole slummy edifice was razed to the ground. Fiona slept through the first stages of the fire, was dragged out into the fields by some alert hippies, went back for the goat, and then spent the night watching her house crackle and spit as the fire engines zigzagged to and fro some kilometres away, looking for the source of the flames that lit up the inky-black French night.
There were a few benefit concerts - world music and spliffs and even a house party run along the lines of a rent party, but the house wasn’t insured and her parents must have buried their feet ten metres deep because the bank account dried up and her son disappeared to Scotland to stay with his grandparents for most of the year. Nickie says that they offered to rebuild the house, but only if she grew the green streaks out of her hair and got rid of the goat. Who knows the truth of it? Fiona didn’t say much. She was deep into a local farmer at the time (well, vice versa actually) and she just shrugged. The caravan was a pay off when the farmer’s wife threatened to castrate him with a ham knife.
I told you Fiona was mad, didn't I? But now I had embarked on an equally crazy adventure and I kept trying to remember delicious little details to tell her and Nickie when I got back to France. I knew I’d be going home with an endless stock of Pirate stories. Enough of them to last until the spring. We’d be laughing all winter.
In the afternoons the boys used to go fishing, and the Pirate used to retreat to his pit for a siesta. He had rigged a fan up over the bed and it was cooler there. At first I used to swelter on the deck, writing postcards and gazing at faded tourist information brochures, but once I’d given in on the bulldozing front, the Pirate was insatiable.
He didn’t sleep in the afternoons any more and the brochures had long since blown overboard. He even made the pliroma change the sheets. I found it too hot, even with the fan. I couldn’t move in the heat of the day. Couldn't even bear to be touched.
"Wha-dyou-mean, too hot? You know you fuckin-won-to!" he'd exclaim. He made me laugh. He used to look so totally flabbergasted at the idea that anyone might not fancy a seeing to, that I used to shrug and say, "All right then, just so long as I don’t have to move and you don’t lie on me."
That always infuriated him. "I not gonna fuckin’ lie on you. I gonna take you to fuckin’ paradise!"
You see what I mean? The guy was a bulldozer. He was so determined to make the earth move, he’d have used explosives if he had to. And then one afternoon, I was sprawling on his bed passively absorbing his sexual passion, when he seized my wrists and hauled me towards his chest.
"You stay here with me. I marry you tomorrow and you stay here with me, work in office. I pay you. How many dollars you want? I pay you two thousand a month. American dollar not Caribbean fuckers."
I blinked in the gloom. The portholes were shaded with antique curtains and the place stunk, if I’m honest. Stunk of stale sweat, semen and diesel. The clean sheets were already greasy, the varnished woodwork sticky with salt. I gazed around me.
"You do what you like. You don-work, I still pay you. What you like. I don-cair. I marry you tomorrow."
"But the twins..."
"No problem. You teach them here, you send them to school. I lie-skids. Boys is welcome here. They lie-kit here. Is paradise here for skids."
His body hadn’t stopped its earth-moving gyrations the whole time he was talking. He was bulldozing me into marrying him. If I hadn’t agreed he’d have probably ploughed me to death right there and then.
"But... but it’s mad!" I gasped.
"Yes!" he whispered, thrusting steadily.
"But I hardly know you."
"Biblically you know me. Yes! Yes!" he said hoarsely, but without missing a beat.
I was trying to say no, but heard myself gasping, "But! Arrrg! Ah! Ooof!"
"Yes! You lie-kit here. I treat you good, I fuck you good. Don’ you feel it? You’re mine." As the hillside teetered on the brink of an avalanche, he slowed down.
"Say yes!" he ordered.
"I... er.. arggh! Oooh! I can’t... er, ha! Er... think about it... aegh! now, ah ah ha woof! Yes!" I cried, and he resumed his expert earth workings. I moaned and thrashed about in delirious pleasure, and he held me to my word.
As soon as his excavations were over he swept me off to the beach, gathered up the boys, told them he was going to marry me, and took us all over to another island for a big celebration meal. Dazed and hardly realising what we were doing, I smiled, ate and drank and admired the boys as they turned cartwheels on the manicured lawns. They were thrilled, that much was certain. They were totally over the moon that I’d finally found a husband, and the Pirate was hardly less jubilant.
"Yes, I gonna be your stepfather," he told them, gesturing expansively. "So if I say you gotta eat ice-cream, you gotta eat ice-cream! Here, have more chips!"
Oh Philippa! I know what you're going to say. How insane, how crazy, why did you do it? Shrug. What can I tell you? I was swept off my feet. I mean, I didn't even begin to work out what it would mean in practical terms. I just didn’t want the dream to stop.
Also, looking back, I just don’t think I could face another winter struggling to chop firewood and put food on the table. I didn’t consciously think about that at the time though. I just thought how much it would make Nickie and Fiona laugh.
I knew they would be scuttled - utterly astounded. I mean, out of the three of us in France, I always thought Fiona would be the one to get married. Mainly because Nickie already had a worn-out husband in her closet. Also because Fiona was so scathing about marriage. And because as I said, I never expected to get married. It just didn’t seem like something that would ever come my way.
I remember discussing it with Nickie one time. We were sitting on her terrace watching the three boys (my two weedy worms and her enormous loudspeaker) fighting in a leaky paddling pool when she suddenly slammed her tea down and said, "Right. That’s it. I don’t care. What’s the point? Just tell me that? What’s the point in hanging out for true love?"
But she had been, apparently. Having married a brainless sex-maniac straight out of art school, she’d decided that next time only true friendship would do. Soulmates, all that stuff. So she ran off with her best male mate and ended up with two kids, enough debt to sink the Titanic and naff all else - and since then had been hanging out for true love. Whatever that was.
"Well, bugger it. I’ll marry the first nice chap I meet and sod true love. It’ll make my parents very happy anyway," she declared.
"They’ve been itching to get their hands on my husband, but I just didn’t want to admit that they were right and I was wrong. Well, I’ll do it. They can gloat and fuss and enjoy themselves as much as they like, and then Daddy can get me a divorce."
"Will he do that?"
"Oh yes. One of his biggest pals is a divorce lawyer, I’m sure they’ll get him."
"Like, er alimony? Like er... huge piles of cash?" My eyes lit up. In my imagination I could already picture Nickie eating meat, and having salad with no brown bits in it, and wine out of a bottle instead of that terrible petrol pump stuff in a plastic can. In my imagination she also had a huge fire crackling in the fireplace, built with bought pre-chopped wood, and a fridge full of supermarket puddings for the kids.
"No, no cash," she said. “Just a divorce. That’s all I want."
"So I can marry someone else."
"Ah!" I grinned. "I see! Come on, who is he?"
"The bloke in the tourist office. You must have seen him. Brown eyes and a mole. I’m sure I could seduce him," said Nickie, fluffing her hair up. "I mean, just think of it. He’s young, he’s cute, he’s obviously 100% nice and best of all, he's a fonctionnaire - he's got a job for life!"
So she launched an all-out campaign against the tourist officer and meanwhile, the three of us went on struggling and giggling and laughing and wondering where it would all end. Fiona got a teaching job for a while, and I worked on the black as a cleaning lady and then that winter it snowed, and the road fell off the side of the mountain and suddenly we were totally cut off from the world. You could only get out of the village in a four wheel drive, and because of the strikes, power supply was sporadic and in any case the snow was piled up everywhere and whenever you shifted it, more of it arrived in the night. If it hadn’t been for a charity organisation which came round doling out essential supplies, I suppose we’d have all just turned into little frozen corpses waiting to be discovered when the thaw came, huddled round the last packet of cigarettes, our skinny frozen fingers clutching empty glasses of wine.
As it was, Nickie, Max-the-dog and her kids moved into my house so we could pool firewood. We hadn’t the faintest idea what Fiona was doing because the phone lines were down and the track up to her caravan was impossible, impassable and altogether out of the question.
(In the end of course, we heard from someone who had been up there that she was fine. Some Guy or other was up there with her and they were having the time of their lives. Hadn’t been out of bed for nearly two weeks and still hadn’t had more then ten minutes sleep at a time.)
Anyway, that winter went on a long time and we sat and endured it, and wondered how long we could go on before one of us went loopy-loo or developed cancer of the hair or some poxy thing. And we talked it all ways round and watched Max dreaming and twitching on the sofa as we huddled round the fire late at night while the kids were piled into our beds so at least they were warm and could sleep.
But the whispers didn’t get us any further than string in the chin and stifled giggles and helpless sobs of laughter. And then eventually we’d fall asleep where we sat and wake up stiff and freezing because the fire had burned out and someone would have to brave the Arctic wind for more firewood and then all the kids would wake up and then we’d find that there wasn’t any Nurofen left and that breakfast would have to be yesterday’s bread dipped in chocolate milk er-gain and we would take turns to sleep in the big bed upstairs while the other one took the sprats outside for snowballs and finally it would be night again and the kids would have finally packed in their endless whining and giggling and we could start our own whining and giggling again.
So at the end of that winter, it was decided (as long as her parents could locate and divorce her husband, which seemed pretty likely to me) that Nickie was going to get married. Sadly not to either me or Fiona as none of us could quite get to grips with the lesbian sex thing, but she was going to find a husband... and Fiona... well, Fiona rubbished all this stuff. Men, she said were just extra children. She had no intention of getting married. She had her house, she had her goat, she had her son, her garden and her hippies, so what else could anyone want? Fiona would never have married the Pirate. Apart from anything else, he’d never have agreed to the goat.
But I married him. Even though I hadn’t planned on it. I went full-steam straight-ahead into it. I married the Pirate. Of course I was more in love with him than I wanted to admit and, of course, he didn’t leave me any time for second thoughts.
We got married just a few days after he asked me. He must have started putting the paperwork together months before because the papers stated that I’d been living there for six months and that the marriage had been announced three weeks earlier. I don’t know how he did it. Don’t ask me. Hauled in a few favours, paid off a few grudges, doled out huge quantities of backsheesh, who knows?
Strictly speaking we were married in France - in a registry office on one of the French Caribbean islands. We flew there on a regular scheduled flight and we wore clothes. Yes, the Pirate bought me a dress, a cream and pink halter-necked thing, and he made Bettina iron it. The boys wore new t-shirts and he produced a new pair of shorts and some clean espadrilles for himself.
Oh yes, it was legal all right. Tommy and Bettina came with us, and ran round carrying luggage and shouting for taxis to the registry office, where we held our hands up and listened to the list of French marriage legislation that the official read out to us, and agreed to everything, and signed the register and shook hands with everyone in sight.
It didn’t take long, about half a hour, and then we took another taxi to a swanky air conditioned bar where the Pirate ordered champagne for everyone and we ate a vast lunch consisting of everything on the menu.
"I celebrating! Bring everything, everything you got! That-swot-we-wan-skids, innit?"
And then he insisted on taking us all to a vast air-conditioned shopping mall where he showered presents on the skids; telescopes and fishing rods and footballs, clothes and cds and dvds. Poor old Tommy and Bettina had to carry everything, and then he decided to buy them presents too and dived into a jeweller’s shop for a pair of waterproof watches before dragging me into all the dress shops and pulling out all the most revolting things... I mean there’s no way I can wear yellow or red or mauve, not with my pale custard colouring.
Anyway, he finally agreed about the colours and we settled for a collection of printed cotton sundresses in white, blue and green with sandals to match. Then I’d had enough and wouldn’t let him buy any more. So we all squashed into another taxi and went for afternoon tea. Yes, of course you can have afternoon tea in the Caribbean. All the posh hotels serve it. If you shout as loud as the Pirate does they do anyway.
The boys spent the evening at the cinema with Tommy and Bettina, watching a murderous detective film. We spent it in a vulgar wedding cake of a hotel watching a dreadful floorshow and drinking yet more champagne. I was in fits of laughter. Marrying the Pirate was the maddest thing I’d ever done in my life and I was revelling in it.
I remember thinking it was a shame he hadn’t produced a white Elvis outfit for the wedding, and snorting with so much amusement that champagne went up the back of my nose. We were both drunk on insanity. The Pirate was absolutely wallowing in the craziness of it, and couldn’t stop laughing. I even remember that his bulldozing activities were interspersed with fits of the giggles that night.
The next morning we all flew back to our island (on yet another regular flight - wonders will never cease) and the Pirate threw a party.
When we arrived back in the complex, two of the Pirate’s catamarans had been lashed together and anchored to the jetty right by the office and Marie-Rose’s bar. Music was blaring and the place was awash with food and alcohol. There was a poisonous rum punch, wine, spirits, orange juice, Coke... everything you could think of, and on the other tables, boiled eggs, hams, cream cakes, miraculously fresh bread, salads with feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and rice, fish, aubergines, tinned red peppers, raw onions and more boiled eggs. The Pirate was potty for boiled eggs. Horrible things.
And he’d invited everyone. The catamarans were surrounded with little boats in all directions. People had come from our island, but also from all the surrounding ones. It clearly hadn’t all been organised the day before. Not that I noticed, or would have cared even if I had noticed. I was enjoying myself hugely. I laughed and shook hands and answered questions and drank more champagne and ate bits of food and threw things overboard and cracked jokes and laughed again.
The Pirate was indulgent, genial and expansive. Dragging me to sit on his lap, he proposed toast after toast, ordered everyone to eat more, dance more, turn the music up, open more wine, have a good time. The moon rose, the stars shone, the music gradually calmed down so that the remaining couples could smooch on the decks of the catamarans, and just as I was falling asleep, the Pirate walked us down the jetty and Tommy drove us back to the boat so that he could collect Bettina, who had been baby-sitting for the boys.
And that I think, was the only night I ever went straight to bed and straight to sleep with the Pirate. I was dead on my feet. Completely wiped out. I just curled up in his arms and the last thing I remember is smiling at him sleepily as he stroked the hair off my forehead.
The boys were exhausted too, after all the excitement. I mean, I’m sure you’re asking how they reacted to Mummy getting married, and all I can say is they didn’t. They have always been totally on the Pirate’s side. They simply love him. He is an absolute God as far as they are concerned. He had scooters, boats, money and pliroma; he put the whole lot at their disposal, let them do whatever they wanted and best of all, never said annoying things like "don’t fall in" and "be careful darling" and "wait for me!" So they were over the moon.
And by the time they finally started to wonder exactly what being his step-sons would mean in practical terms, the Pirate had all that organised too. He certainly didn’t have any intention of moving to France, and he definitely wasn’t letting us back to France without him. So he had decided to send the boys to boarding school in England.
The twins exchanged dubious glances. "On south coast, by sea," he continued. "So you learn sail properly. Also riding. They have horses at the school. And you come back here every holidays."
My heart sank but their eyes lit up like fireworks as he described it. Sailing, riding, games, larks in the dormies, massive quantities of pocket money, no uniforms, English sausages for breakfast every day... what more could two boys want?
It was all settled, although I clung on to them for a few more weeks, my little babies. But the Pirate had already chosen the school and the boys were hauling at their leashes, so there wasn’t much I could do. After all, I hadn’t totally hated boarding school myself, once I’d pulled myself together and stopped snivelling in corners.
There was another thing too. Having been to school in France, my skids were too far ahead to go to school with the locals, and I was incapable of teaching them myself. Those were the only two other options. I would miss them like crazy, but it was a heaven sent opportunity for the boys.
And as I say they really wanted to go. They weren’t torn sobbing from my bosom or anything like that. No, no, the twins were gagging to play rugby and tennis, they couldn’t wait to sleep in a dormitory and have a matron to tease.
It was all extremely civilised. We flew to Heathrow and took a train down to the south coast to see the school that the Pirate had picked out from the Internet. Of course, he must have already enrolled them but we went through the rigmarole just as if there really had been any choice in the matter: the boys loved it, I agreed they should go there, the school offered them places, the Pirate flashed a credit card, and we launched into a week of frantic shopping for school clothes and equipment.
One day when the Pirate had proudly taken his stepsons down to the marina, I rang Nickie from the hotel with my news.
"Sounds like you’ve got finally got the string out of your chin!" she said. "Fiona’s boy is loving his boarding school. Says the food is fantastic."
"Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? After a lifetime of eating Fiona’s cooking!"
We both cackled with glee. There’s nothing more fun than ripping your friends to shreds, and we loved Fiona really.
"So how are you doing?" I asked.
"Oooh well... I’ve got a new man too. Nothing as glamorous as yours, but at least he knows how to mend bicycle tyres."
"The tourist officer?”
“No. He turned out to be gay.”
“Bad luck. What’s this one like?” I asked. “Do the skids like him?”
“Oh, sorry.” (Christ, I was even starting to sound like the Pirate now.) “Kids,” I said firmly. “Kids. Do they like him?"
"Yep, they’re already calling him papa..."
"Blimey. Is he living with you, then?"
"Not officially, but he keeps his toothbrush here."
"Well done! And what does he do?"
"He’s a geography teacher, but he wants to be a sailing instructor - you know teaching other people how to teach sailing. That’s what he really wants to do. But I don’t know if he’ll find a job doing that around here."
"And how about you?"
"Ooh, pretty much the same. The chimney collapsed last week and I’ve been trying to get someone to fix it before it starts getting cold. There’s a new arrival, living in that white villa near the river. Another Brit. Says her husband is joining her as soon as he’s finished his contract. Apparently he works on an oil rig. They’re going to open a crafts shop. I think she makes pots.
“Oh Jesus, a potty potter. How many kids?”
“Poor cow. What’s the betting hubby never quite manages to move to France?”
“Now, now... don’t be cynical. You’re blissfully married, I’ve got a new man and my divorce is on its way! Things are looking up.”
“And how’s Fiona?”
“God help us all, she wants another baby."
"Rather her than me."
"Either that or she just fancies her gynie... you know that serious-looking one who works at the clinic on Thursdays."
"Ugh! He’s so revolting, how could she?"
"God knows. I don’t. I think she’s gone native. So she goes to see him practically every month just in case she’s pregnant. I think if she saw him in the street she’d have her knicks off and her legs in the air before the poor man even managed to say hello."
"Shouldn’t think he'd say hello unless she did take her knickers off. Probably wouldn’t actually recognise her face!"
We cackled with guilty laughter.
"So you think I’m doing the right thing then?” I asked, wiping my eyes. “Sending the boys to boarding school?"
"For the twins? Who knows? Probably. As long as they’re happy, it’ll be fine. For you? Ditto. I just wish I could get the string out of my own chin so successfully."
I grinned. It was true. There wasn’t a sign of blue string anywhere and the boys seemed over the moon. I went down to meet them at the Marina and when I saw them I knew that however much I would miss them, I was doing the right thing.
Standing by the edge of the water, their light brown hair ruffled by the breeze, they looked different. They were no longer the skinny little Mummy’s boys I’d taken to the Caribbean. They were confident, relaxed, happy and incredibly healthy. They were fit and tanned, with pink cheeks and glowing eyes, and I suddenly realised just how much they’d grown.
They were standing at the edge of the water pelting the Pirate with questions and he was laughing. He ruffled their hair and they caught at his hands excitedly, and they were literally hanging round him asking for more ice cream, when he caught sight of me.
"Hey, Camille!" he called. "Look at these skids!" "They crazy about boats, you know that?"
"No, I don’t think so," I said, "I think they’re just crazy!"
The twins laughed and punched my arms and we went off for ice cream, and if anyone had been watching us that day, they’d probably have thought we were lovely. A lovely model family. To be honest, I thought so myself.
An illusion. An illusion which wouldn’t last long. A few days later we flew back to the Caribbean leaving the boys to start their lives as termly boarders in a progressive, enlightened and friendly English boarding school.
And I still hadn’t noticed that the Pirate had kept my passport. No, I hadn’t noticed. I was totally preoccupied with getting the twins settled at school, and in any case, I was still blissing out on being cosseted and spoilt.
And then the Pirate took his gloves off.