I was thinking about TT this morning. He was aged about 77 or something, but very spry. He was great fun when he was smoking and drinking and in full flow with his numerous, mostly nautical stories. I didn’t know him very well, but I knew that he’d spent a lot of his life in small boats. I think he designed electronic navigation equipment or something. It set me remembering a few of my rather more modest boating experiences:
It must’ve been 1987 or something, and we were chugging slowly across the Aegean sea towards our destination holiday island in a small open boat, powered by what sounded like a lawnmower engine, when L turned to me and said:
“If the boat sinks, you will rescue me, won’t you?”
We still had maybe another couple of miles to get to Skopelos, and the sea was flat calm, and the boat wasn’t filling with water, and the lawnmower engine was still working, and the pilot hadn’t collapsed and died just yet, and anyway there were a couple of oars in the boat, so I said:
L looked at me very earnestly, and said:
“Promise you will rescue me.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “I promise.” And then spent the last two miles imagining what it would be like trying to keep myself afloat as she clung to me in the open sea after the wind had come up, and the lawnmower engine had died, and the pilot had fallen backwards into the water holding both the oars, and the boat had sunk after the big waves began breaking over it.
She works in smoking cessation these days. And in retrospect I can see why.
In fact the wind can come up very quickly, and transform a calm sea into a raging storm in just a few minutes. I’d experienced it several times.
My father used to keep a little boat at a yacht club in the Saco de Sao Francisco on the east side of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara bay. It was clinker-built, with one mast and a single sail and a small outboard motor. Him and me and my mother climbed into it one placid Sunday afternoon in 1960, just to potter about offshore, and maybe go swimming. When my father cut the motor in the middle of the Saco, we were about half a mile offshore.
We hadn’t been there long when the wind suddenly came up from the east, and the flat waters of the Saco started to first get choppy, and then mount into ever higher waves.
My mother started screeching at my father to restart the motor and go back to the yacht club on the north shore. But it wouldn’t start. At the best of times it would usually take about 10 pulls on its lanyard to get it going. But this time it flatly refused. Too windy or too rough.
The boat was beginning to take in a little bit of water by now, and my father decided that the only thing for it was to break out the sail. I helped him haul it slowly up as the boat pitched and rolled.
And then we were running before the wind, heading out of the Saco into Guanabara Bay, where the waves were even higher. My mother subsided into the bottom of the boat, saying she couldn’t stand it any more, and was just going to lie there until it was over. And my father laughed.
I loved it. And I sat right up on the bow of the boat, with my legs dangling into the water, clinging onto the mast’s forestay, as the boat plunged into the troughs and mounted the waves and the spray flew in my face over the boat. It was exhilerating.
Eventually we came to a headland with a tiny beach, and my father let the wind carry the boat up onto the sand. Half an hour later, the wind dropped, and the sun came out. And we climbed back into the boat, and the motor started with the first pull on the lanyard, and we went slowly back to the yacht club in the Saco, with my mother swearing she’d never go out in an open boat again.
My mother used to be a social smoker, but when she got older she became something of an antismoker. In retrospect maybe I can see why.
The last time I saw TT a couple of years back, I visited him in his little flat, and he offered me tea and cigarettes. Even whisky if I’d like some. And we sat talking, and he told me that he didn’t go out to pubs and cafes any more after smoking got banned. “I’m too old to stand outside.” He wasn’t very well. He had lots of pills. He’d had a colostomy bag ever since half his intestines had been removed when he’d been diagnosed with cancer. After they’d removed them, they found that there wasn’t any cancer after all. But they couldn’t put them back in, could they? Nevertheless the doctors said he should quit smoking. He said he’d stopped for a couple of weeks, but he’d got so depressed that he’d started again.
I used to wonder what life was like for him now that they’d taken away his pubs and his cafes and all his boating friends, and pretty much the only people who visited him now were the antismoking doctors and the antismoking nurses and his antismoking ex-wife and the antismoking home help who came in while we were talking and told us both we shouldn’t be smoking. It didn’t look like it was much fun.
His antismoking ex-wife phoned me a week or so ago to say that he’d died a few months earlier, and she’d just scattered his ashes out at sea. “He would’ve liked that,” I said. She went on to say that he’d stopped eating. They’d tried to make him eat, but he couldn’t keep anything down, and slowly wasted away. “Not a nice death,” she said. And of course she had to mention his “smoking and drinking”, as if somehow they’d been the cause of everything.
This morning it suddenly occurred to me that maybe he’d decided to stop eating, because he’d simply had enough of being bullied and badgered by all the ferocious killjoys that now surrounded him. It was perhaps his final act of self-determination. It was something that he could still do. Just him. He could just say No to them all, and spit out their food back into their faces. Because he wasn’t frightened of death like they were. For, unlike them, he’d faced that prospect many times before, out on the sea when the storm winds came, and the engine wouldn’t start, and the radio battery gave out.
And maybe when he died, in his own mind he wasn’t lying in a hospital bed with tubes in his arms, but was floating in a dead calm clinging to a broken mast beneath a burning sun, without food or water for two or maybe three weeks, he couldn’t really remember how long.