Irma: Part 4

6.00pm Pointe a Pitre airport, Guadeloupe. Two hours at a cafe table on hard seats surrounded by luggage and bustling, baggage laden itinerants is not a recipe for peace and tranquillity. Patrick was getting edgy and already wanted to join the queue that was beginning to form at the suspected check-in line. Lucy and Patrick had been falling out rapidly the last few hours. The uncertainty we were experiencing was morphing into stress. Vanessa and I remained placid and Patrick went to join the queue clearly irritated that none of us showed any sign of following. Standing for an hour or two isn’t too appealing for me and I remained seated with Lucy, while Vanessa diplomatically joined Patrick in the queue.

Around 7.30pm, some list wielding administrators bristling with highlighter pens appeared at the head of the queue and people started filtering past their new check point and toward the check in desks. Lucy and I collected our bags and joined the queue about six feet behind Patrick and Vanessa with about 5 people between us. My name was quickly found on the list, checked against my passport and I was politely waved through. Lucy’s name wasn’t visible. No Cooper on the list. Cooper, Cooper… No… no Cooper… Lucy’s heart was in her mouth. It still hadn’t appeared by the third time of scanning a finger down the column. Lucy retained the presence of mind to scan across to the first name column next to it… her official name, Thomasin, there it was. Thomasin Coter… a typo lost in translation. A quick cross reference of the passport number confirmed the error and she was waved through too, and we all eventually met up with Pat and Vanessa at the departure gate cafe and relax best we could. “There won’t be any food on the flight, better get something here.” Pat told us. Looking at the prices in the airport, I’d rather starve, if that was even a possibility of recent sumptious living at the Ben Haddou’s. It was past 9pm and judging by the last couple of weeks, departure could be between 15 minutes to a few hours, only left to our imagination and patience.

Peering at the plane through the windows into the darkness revealed no company markings I had ever seen. Airbus A 350 X-WB was it’s markings. A black and grey chequered tail with a giant A350 painted up it. I hadn’t heard of the A350. Boarding revealed an area of missing seats, masking tape and the aroma of new upholstery like a new car. This thing was straight out of the factory. A demo model, perhaps, that pilots could take for a spin…

Patrick and Vanessa took their seats and Lucy and I ended up about six rows and a toilet pod behind them, including the three of four missing rows across the empty space in between. No grand parting. this would be the last contact I had with Pat and Vanessa before they disappeared into the Parisian landscape. This was a wide bodied jet similar to the 777, nine seats across, and I was in the centre. The flight crew were more numerous than usual and wore no common uniform – perhaps they were volunteers, I don’t know. I’m grateful. As an evacuation, this was pretty luxurious.

Getting tired when we were established at altitude, I dropped the table tray, rested my head on my arms and fell asleep only to be awoken sometime later for an in-flight meal. I was too tired to notice whether I was hungry. Eating was something just to do as much as anything else.

Sometime later, breakfast was served and we eventually touched down at Paris Charles de Gaule. It was daylight, maybe noon, one,… I don’t remember. An official came to check our forward journey plans. Pat, Vanessa and Lucy all had theirs but I had not. Lucy had a plane to catch in a hurry and left straight away along with the majority of the passengers. I was instructed to wait for someone from the British Embassy and to stay in my seat.

Lucy had become my closest companion since the hurricane and her presence had worn away my skin of solitude and her leaving left a graze of loneliness. That skin would have to grow back in its own time, I had other things to do. Things were getting back to normal fairly quickly and I had to keep moving forward. I’d be home soon, family and friends. the book of life had suddenly flipped to a new chapter before expected.

After about ten minutes with a dozen or so assorted passengers in various states of anxiety, I was asked by an official what I was doing there and promptly ushered off the plane into the Croix Rouge centre. A Parisian 13℃ is quite a drop from the 28℃ of Guadeloupe, especially donned in flip flops shorts and T’shirt.

Milling around the distressed families in the Croix Rouge centre, a volunteer asked what my plans were and then told me to go to Terminal 2E or 2F where I could get a train or flight. Sorting through a jumble of clothes, they found a jacket three sizes two big for me. That with shorts and spindly legs made me look like a giant chicken. I didn’t care, it was warm and I could carry my passport in the pocket.

This was the end of the line. It became clear that I had fallen off the edges of the evacuation. My route to the UK was now up to me and that was OK. I was alive and still had all my faculties. Indeed, I was lucky.

Airport Information told me Eurostar would be the cheapest option and pointed toward the Gare Aeroport. Patrick and Vanessa were already taking the 11pm bus. Lucy was probably already boarding her Exeter flight, if she made it in time. I checked the Eurostar fare online rather than trek down to the railway station, €210 not worth the effort, maybe that was a mistake and should have padded my way down to the station and ask. Skyscanner, Easyjet: all three figure sums.

The Air France office was just across from the public desk I was using. €80 departing at 4pm and since it was already 2.30pm, I could check in at the same time. Did I really want to wait nine hours for an overnight bus to arrive in London just as the city was waking up? Normally I would, since I could think of the €50 saving as a net-wage for the day. But not today. Getting to family for solace, company and a comfortable bed for tonight would be worth the extra rather than an uncomfortable sleepless night on a bus. I felt both tired and abandoned now: alone, Glee was lost. I was in a 13℃ Paris with a rucksack. Even if Patrick and Vanessa showed up for the same one. I was done. I bought the Air France ticket.

The security gate at the far end of the hall had no queue and was a standard affair except that I was detained until I downed the water that the Croix Rouge had given me and thrown the remainder in the bin half full of other bottles in case it was explosive. If a bottle made a big bang then how about a bin full? Pockets emptied into trays, boarding pass clenched between teeth, laptop out, money, passport piled in the tray and then passed behind a screen under the gaze of a bored looking security agent, looking out for our safety and probably wondering how he could cover his mortgage with a more fun existence.

The passengers were already at the gate, jostling for position so that they could all leave the tarmac into the sky at exactly the same time. As usual, I joined the queue as the last few stragglers were filtering through. Checking my pockets, there was no passport. I knew it wasn’t in my bag but emptied it on the floor anyway. The driving licence wouldn’t cut it with the airport officials. European Union, open borders but still need a passport. By now, everything I had was over the floor. No passport, or anyone else left at the gate ready to board. I told the agent on the gate about my journey from St Martin and they became warmer in their manner. The flight was already past its departure time but an unannounced delay meant I still had a few minutes. I ran back to the security belt, remembering it was at the end meant that I didn’t have to check more than one. A glance at the photo confirmed that the one they had in their hands was mine and I ran back to the gate to bundle everything back into the bag and shuffled down the ramp to the plane. There was still a queue at the door of the plane, so I could just stand for a moment and reset myself into the normal course of things. Maybe pretend that this didn’t just happen.

From Heathrow, the bus to Staines was a short wait, and I texted my Aunt and Uncle that I would be in The George. The bus arrived and soon found itself in the evening rush hour queue along the London Road. I disembarked early, as I could walk the remaining half mile faster than the traffic, even in flip flops.

Adnams Regatta with its picture of a sailboat seemed a fitting end to the journey and an appropriate toast to Glee somewhere in the lagoon in St Martin. About a third of a glass down, Margrit arrived with a big smile and gave me a big hug. Terry followed and laughed out loud at how I was dressed, drawing attention to us all. It didn’t matter, I was just happy to see them. I didn’t really want to return to England but it did feel good to be back, at least for now…

Irma: Part 3

Landing in Guadeloupe in the early afternoon came with a muted feeling. We didn’t need to think as we were herded onto buses and into a shell of a building that looked like an unfurnished departure gate. We were processed by the Croix Rouge that had a line of desks across the entrance. A make shift Maginot line for filtering unknown souls onto lists of names.

 

The atmosphere was calm but busy amongst the feeling of chaos. None of us knew what our destiny was. The Croix Rouge were briefed only on the processing and knew no more than any of us. It was understandable that some individuals were giving them flack but none of this was their fault. They were just following orders… if they had any. Given the situation, the leaderless Croix Rouge foot-soldiers were calm, helpful and empathetic.

Milling about the ‘warehouse,’ I felt like a sheep at a cattle market, dunking charitable biscuits into benevolent tea with the underlying urge to know what was to happen coming and going like waves on a windswept shore. “This too shall pass.” Time seems to slow proportionally to progress made.

Patrick was fluent in French and was a real asset to our small team of refugees. Patrick discovered Laidi Ben Haddou, a Guadeloupe local drifting around the melee. Laidi had seen the TV news of St Martin and came down to the airport to see if he could do anything to help. Four hours, he had been there without any information about how that might be.

Laidi had space for four people at his home and generously offered us shelter. Since there was no information about flights ‘home’ or anywhere else, for that matter, and perhaps only twenty camp beds at the far end of the warehouse, our small band split in half and notified a Croix Rouge official that we were leaving with Laidi. The official told us that they were not authorised to release us from the airport. We left anyway. Patrick, Vanessa, Lucy and I gladly piled into Laidi’s Renault.

Half an hour later we were standing on a veranda, facing the trade wind looking across the treetops and the water to sunset over Marie Galante: a stark contrast to the last week. Laidi and Cecile’s children playing in the pool, electricity, fresh water on tap and internet access. The ‘come down’ was starting; this sanctuary cleared a space in which emotions began to bubble through the surface of awareness. There is no word to describe the feeling, not sadness, not grief. Neither was it relief or gratitude. Yes I was grateful for this family’s generosity, and for my own survival, but this was a feeling of tears and butterflies, an automatic reaction that had no label.

Lucy was sitting in the chair next to me and spontaneously began to cry. She is more sensitive than me. I could only guess how she was feeling. Laidi noticed before any of us and asked Lucy to help out in the kitchen: a successful strategy for distracting her from her suffering.

Patrick and Vanessa seemed to be coping well. Looking over at them they were inscrutable. Vanessa didn’t say much and Patrick was talking in ‘shoulds.’ I remained on the veranda and fired up the PC for two reasons: one, take away the flame from beneath my own simmering emotion and two, reassure my friends and family that I was OK and on my way home.

A late afternoon swim rinsed away the sweat, dust and sorrow of St Martin. This cool immersion was as soothing for the soul as it was refreshing for the body.

As darkness fell, the table was set with food and wine, and we toasted good health and fortune, feeling humbled by such generosity and guilt that others back in St Martin were not so fortunate. I wondered what the locals were doing now, still in darkness, short of food and water. All I could do was choose a brighter thought. My own suffering would serve no-one, and so I purposely became present and focused on the ‘now’: the company of friends.

It was getting late and this transition from survival to recuperation left me exhausted. Yes, there were beds for four guests but they were doubles in two rooms. Patrick and Vanessa were business partners but virtually a couple, which left one bed for me and Lucy. I couldn’t have thought of many situations more comforting than sleeping next to Lucy, but I opted for the hammock suspended by the rafters of the moonlit veranda, cooled by the tropical Atlantic breeze. I thought of Debbie. If she was still alive then maybe I could have drifted away in her comforting embrace.

I’d read in the book, Papillon, that if you sleep diagonally in a hammock then you can lie flat. And sleeping in that position was pretty comfortable but the netting isn’t particularly windproof. At 4am I was chilled out… and not in a good way. Suspended by netting in a breeze wearing shorts and T’shirt doesn’t offer much insulation. Even so, I was too tired to get up and look for a blanket. I soon fell back to sleep: out cold, so to speak; and drifted off into a vivid dreamscape, as usually happens with a broken night’s sleep.

Just before dawn, I was wide awake. It would already be mid-morning in the UK so I logged onto email and Facebook and caught up on unread emails and messages. I had missed social media since Irma took out the utilities in St Martin. It’s my prime source of social contact since I became an itinerant nomad – maybe even before then. Wherever I go, my friends are always with me, WiFi permitting.

The house was stirring into life just as my battery was dying and after a leisurely breakfast and unsuccessful attempts by Patrick and Laidi telephoning for information, we packed our bags into Laidi’s car, who then drove us to the airport. Apparently, some evacuees managed to get a flight out in the early hours of the morning but nothing else appeared to be scheduled between now and Christmas.

The Croix Rouge seemed a little more organised now and were even distributing Pizza donated by local businesses, much to the irritation of Patrick who thought that food distribution should be the government’s job. It is what it is… no use complaining.

Lucy, Vanessa and I found some seats away from the busy entrance. An announcement was to be made at 3pm and we waited patiently for whatever news that would provide. The announcer, was surrounded by a huddle of people. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and even if I could I didn’t speak French. Suddenly there was an uproar and a woman was bellowing at the unfortunate messenger. Crowds: not happy ‘without’ information; not happy ‘with’ information… Thursday, a flight would be scheduled for Thursday. That hadn’t gone down at all well, poor bloke. Today was Monday, maybe Tuesday, the days now all felt the same since Irma.

That night, Lucy insisted we switch and I have the bed. She wouldn’t have my protest so I had the bed plus a mosquito net. Not that mosquitoes were a problem last night. The bed was comfortable but hot lacking the tropical breeze of the veranda. Lucy cheated the hammock by sleeping in the lounge on the sofa, feeding the mosquitoes. I guess that’s what self sacrifice gets you.

When I awoke, it was daylight. I had slept well but didn’t want to get up until there was movement in the house. I checked the date on the computer. Tuesday 12th Sept. A full week had passed since I joined the shelter for Irma. It seemed longer somehow. Only one week and these new friends I had not known until Irma already felt like family.

Over breakfast, we discussed whether it would be worth trekking to the airport since the ‘Thursday’ revelation. Laidi had some business down by the airport anyway so our plan was to go to the mall to get some clothes for Vanessa and whatever else we needed then continue to the airport.

Patrick suggested he cook for the Ben Haddou family and that we all chip in for provisions. It was the least we could do. I felt there was not really enough we could do to repay their generosity. In reality, it was Patrick that provided the most payback as he was confined to the kitchen, slaving over a hot tagine while the rest of us socialised outside on the veranda.

We were living like kings. Three nights of good food and good company in the midst of disaster. I usually didn’t live this well in my normal life and the feeling didn’t sit comfortably.

Tonight I was back in the hammock. I had learned my lesson and taken a sheet from the bedroom to mitigate the wind chill. This night was windless, warm and humid. Kicking off the sheet invited the mosquitoes to a buffet and I quickly wrapped up again to sweat the night out.

Wednesday morning, day four in the Ben Haddou retreat. Laidi received a call that there was a flight out today. We were to be at the airport by 4pm. There were no other details so we relaxed at Laidi’s until 2pm then set off to the airport leaving time in hand for Murphy’s Law.

As usual, nobody at the airport seemed to know anything about this mysterious flight but we eventually found out which check in desks we should watch. The flight would be 9pm; a five hour wait. time would tell whether this information was accurate…

Lucy, Patrick, Paul, Laidi, Vanessa

Irma: Part 2

It became clear that I had made the best choices for my own survival. Shrimpy’s is a sturdy building with a flat solid roof. The people that were there became a top notch team for enabling survival and recovery. “The A Team” Lucy called it. The damage to Shrimpy’s was minimal. Other buildings didn’t fare so well. Reports came in that some of the big hotels had collapsed onto the people sheltering within. It was the flooding that gave the biggest problem at Shrimpy’s. The sea had caused minor damage and contaminated the drinking water in the cisterns under ground.

Calculations determined that, by salvaging the tap water we had saved for flushing the toilets and bailing sea water instead, we had enough to drink for two weeks with the eight of us their, which instantly halved as another ten people returned from hurricane shelters and damaged vessels. Ben devised a rain water collection system comprising barrels, pipes and guttering ready for Hurricane Jose tomorrow. The latest news was that Jose was tracking north of St Martin: more rain, less wind. ideal for what we wanted. Jose could become a blessing rather than a curse. St Martin is a dry island with no rivers or streams.

Jaco and his family joined us. Jaco and his wife, Judith, run Atlantech Divers and brought valuable knowledge and experience of the lagoon and what was happening at Sandy Ground, an area of St Martin notoriously vulnerable to violence and crime. We were more organised and prepared than many of the locals and people started coming to the door to ask for water and fuel. The looters had focused on high value goods to start with but were beginning to focus on food and water as hunger set in. Looters is an unfair term in the case of food and water since this is for basic survival. A truck was seen carrying away six brand new washing machines from a damaged store. the motivation for that is different to carrying away food and water from a supermarket. We were doing fine, at Shrimpy’s, but what would we do if others became desperate and knew that we had a stock of food and water?

Without Glee, all I had to do was live in the moment and help out as best I could. My life was not my own at this point but, apart from pangs of ‘survivor guilt’ this felt good: unburdened, I had all I needed. Every day trivialities were blown away with Irma and a community evolved out of the wreckage. We were focusing on life and survival without even thinking about it. It felt natural; almost tribal. we were looking after ourselves as well as the group. This is what the state constantly promises but fails to deliver.

With so many people here, my new bed was a foam pad on the laundry floor, tucked behind the counter near the machines to maintain a modicum of privacy. I wasn’t sleeping very well but still feeling grateful for being where I was. It was hot in the day and warm at night. The brackish water in the cisterns was good enough for a daily shower and we still had enough petrol to run the generators a couple of hours a day to cool the freezers and pump the water to the bathroom.

We were four days in by now. The Gendarmes were enforcing a curfew but there were no signs of relief activity from the government. Water and fuel was scarce. Anyone relying on government to solve their problems was endangering their lives. The relief would be coming from good hearted people, not the bureaucrats that feed off the populace.

Law enforcement was understandably over-stretched and the criminals had the upper hand, looting and robbing with impunity.

We managed to salvage Jaco’s outboard from Grand Key (Explorer Island) just in time by the looks of it. The hoses had been cut in preparation by looters who would return with the tools to remove it. We abandoned the dinghy it was attached to for the time being, maybe for ever. Jaco depended on his outboard for his business, what looks like just a boat engine to most of us was a hugely expensive lifeline for Jaco and his family.

On the way back, we called by Kochi, beached on Sandy Ground, to see if Carl was still there – we had heard him on the VHF but his catamaran looked like an abandoned shed. Carl emerged as we approached, clearly pleased to see a friendly face. He was aware of the marauding looters but had been so far overlooked. Carl was preparing his dinghy for water collection from the oncoming hurricane Jose.

Carl was a neighbour of mine in Providence Bay. Irma dragged him and his mooring block south under the causeway bridge to rest near the coast guard at Simpson Bay. Their astounding advice, considering the number of inverted catamarans, was to stay aboard. The back half of the Irma dragged him north, back under the causeway, eventually coming to rest ashore at Sandy Ground, the right way up.

Returning to Shrimpy’s, the latest news was that hurricane Jose was moving north away from its track to St Martin. We wanted the rain but not the wind and, in the end, we collected around 600 litres from Jose. the storm was short and sweet with hardly any wind as Jose wandered north into the Atlantic.

So far, I had been confined to Rue De Morne Ronde and Time Out Boat Yard area. Andy was on a mission to find more petrol for the generator so I hopped on the back of the quad to assist. The ride was like something out of a “Mad Max” movie, the road was covered by sand, boats parked at the roadside, houses reduced to match-wood. Seeing all this made me appreciate my luck in staying at Shrimpy’s. People were on the streets salvaging what they could. The gendarmes were posted at strategic points to enforce the 1pm curfew, and so we were turned back empty handed ‘tout de suite.’ The rest of the afternoon was spent washing sand out of the store room and general cleaning up. A period of solitude away from the bickering and frustration being expressed as the strain was beginning to show with people living in close quarters.

Sunday morning came, what was it, five days since Irma? it was hard tracking the days as they slid into one another, and I lay on the pad on the laundry floor as long as possible while people gathered at the start of another day. Andy fired up the quad and we went toward Grand Case searching for petrol. Rounding a corner revealed a 400 metre line of traffic leading to the petrol station. Andy pulled up at the back of the line while I walked toward the station. Talking to the locals, I found out the station was to open at 2pm, six hours from now. Pedestrians with jerry cans were gathered at the station in front of the traffic line. Six hours… we would come back later.

Arriving back at Shrimpy’s. Valerie, a slim dark haired French woman, arrived and announced that people were being evacuated from Grand Case and if we wanted to go we needed to put our names on the list she held in her hand, and to be ready to leave right now. This was a paradigm shift since I expected to be stranded for weeks committed to help Mike and Sally at Shrimpy’s. Lucy made the point that while we stay, we are using up resources, even though we were all contributing our efforts, this needed to be balanced. Ben was here and committed to his boat. Jaco and his family had nowhere else to go. Mike and Sally were in good hands and Shrimpy’s was in pretty good shape.

Glee had not been found, I had nothing here and felt a need to return to the UK. I was packed within two minutes and explained to Mike what I was doing. I felt bad about that but he told me “You must do what you must do.”

 

Within an hour or two eight of us from Shrimpy’s were on a minibus headed to Grand Case airport not knowing our destination, only that we were heading out of St Martin. The ATR 72 on the runway suggested we were on a short hop, not a long distance plane by any stretch. Guadeloupe or Martinique was my guess since they are the nearest French Islands out of the way of Irma’s footprint…

Irma: Part 1

The hurricane season is an annual affair for the Caribbean. I wasn’t here for last year’s so was interested to experience daily life throughout the Summer of 2017.

Every morning I flick on the VHF to tune into Shrimpy’s radio net which starts of with the weather from the Windguru web site. Other eyes are east across the Atlantic looking at developing tropical waves and storms. various systems formed and dissipated throughout June and July.

Harvey was the first we saw as a credible threat to Sint Maarten, but as the days passed we could see it roll south toward Grenada and develop into the Hurricane that flooded Texas and Louisiana.

“Bowling balls across the Atlantic,” my friend Gregg called them, “and we all hope for ‘gutter-balls’.”

Irma was the next potential slowly edging west. Starting at a more northerly latitude it normally would have turned north into the mid Atlantic and dissipated over cooler water but there was a high pressure system over Bermuda pushing the depression on a more southerly track.

The word across the lagoon was that Irma should turn north before too long and lose its power over cooler water. The forecast track eventually put Sint Maarten within the southern part of the ‘uncertainty cone,’ a wide area where the hurricane could possibly track. The longer the prediction the wider the track.

Tony on ‘SV Anna’ took an early decision. Irma may miss Sint Maarten but with Irma 5 days away he sailed South to Grenada just in case.

Irma started to increase in strength as she encountered warmer water and lose strength again as she passed cooler water. My neighbours and I in the lagoon started to prepare our boats for heavy wind, removing sails, awning and covers to reduce windage.

Days passed and the predicted northerly turn was not forthcoming and the Bermuda high was still pushing Irma south, threatening islands from Guadeloupe to St Martin and Anguilla.

The conversation turned to whether we would shelter the storm ashore or stay on our boats, if it came. Most of us opted for caution and arranged shelter ashore. Yordan on ‘Don’t Worry’ opted to shelter in a small space behind a previous wreck and the beach at the end of the causeway bridge with mooring lines out to anywhere solid. Carl on Kochi doubled up his anchor chain to his mooring with his Catamaran in the middle of Providence bay not far from Glee.

 

 

 

 

 

My dinghy and outboard were hauled onto deck and strapped down the day before Irma’s projected arrival. Irma had grown to a Category 3 hurricane fairly quickly so we thought a Category 4 was likely and hopefully pass north leaving us with 95 mile an hour winds.

On the morning of the 5th Sept, I packed my essentials in a bag and Jacob on ‘Lark’ gave me a ride to Shrimpy’s. Mike announced on the VHF net that anyone was welcome and to come early to help with prep. Mike had good resources including fast Wifi and provisions should we need them. We were clear then that Irma was a Category 5 hurricane with its straight line trajectory crossed St Kitts but forecast to curve north over Anguilla.

We stashed away and tied down as much as we could along the waterside of Shrimpy’s. Buckets were filled with tap water for flushing toilets. The Gendarmes came around and warned that the storm surge would be to the ceiling and that we couldn’t stay there. Mike pointed out the upstairs as a shelter and they left satisfied. Consequently, some of the residents of the crew quarters opted to evacuate to the school in Concordia. I was tempted but I consider Mike a friend and a feeling of loyalty and support tipped the balance to stay and help with prep.

 

 

 

 

 

Ben and Lucy from SV Mistress appeared later and boosted things along and by nightfall we were hunkered down in the laundry all on the Internet tracking Irma and waiting the weather to arrive.

It’s difficult to sleep when a monster is threatening to arrive at your door so I reflected on what needed to be done and considered what people would need should I not come through the other side. So I listed all my online accounts into an encrypted file and sent them to a trusted friend to forward to my family should I not be heard from for a month. The password for the file I sent to my son. He said that this was a bit worrying but I reassured him that it was only a precaution and I didn’t believe I would be harmed.

The wind slowly built through the early hours of the morning but we felt well protected in the building. the wind was howling from the north and we were protected by the terraced buildings that sandwiched us from north west to south east. when the point came that we should perhaps edge round the building to escape upstairs, Andy noticed that the power lines were live and jumping around in the wind and rain. It was too dangerous to risk getting to the stairs. if the electricity didn’t get us, the roof panels flying down the street might.

Just before dawn the floor started to become wet as the water began to rise and shortly started to pour in through the sides of the dock-side doors, holes and conduits, near the street and the surge pushing water through the doors waist high on the dockside, We still had power and were concerned that we would might get fried. I think Ben switched the power off at the main panel, I don’t remember whether it was that or whether the power finally failed, but we were in the dark with LED lamps. The water was already three inches high indoors but looked at least knee high on the street side.

The question then was how long and how high would the surge go and stashed my bag and laptop on top of the tumble driers eight feet off the ground. Looking around the room, there were tables we could stand on to et our heads up to the ceiling, a good 15 to 18 feet above sea level, surge being predicted to be 12 to 15 feet.

Daybreak came and the wind began to noticeably subside and realised that it must be the eye of the storm crossing the island. Quickly we decided to evacuate upstairs. The water pressure pinned the front door shutter closed and the sea-surge was still braying at the back door.

 

 

 

 

 

The window shutter was wound up to reveal a river on the street strewn with cars, sofas, fridges and general house contents and hopping out the window revealed calf deep-water and dead electrical wires. Sally, Mikes wife is elderly and infirm so Andy carried her up the stairs to the first floor apartment. The apartment is disused and has no facilities and by then had 2 inches of water over the floor, but at least there was daylight and no risk of flooding. Mike has seen a few hurricanes in his time on the island and was concerned about looters and stayed to guard the business. Ben valiantly volunteered to stay but I was hungry for daylight and morbidly curious about what Irma was doing.

The scene was shocking. houses flattened and leaves stripped from trees, boats upside down in boat yards and we were only half way through the storm.

The eye of a hurricane is a strange feeling: an uncanny calm amidst the destruction but logic reminding us that more is to come. On one hand feeling thankful to survive and on the other, reminding ourselves that this is not yet over.

I guess we had about half an hour of calm, enough to get established upstairs. The ridge line of the mountains disappeared from view replaced by a battleship grey curtain of rain. The eye-wall of the hurricane was on its way. Already, the water had subsided from the street somewhat and we could detect the breeze building in the opposite direction from the south pushing the water out of the lagoon.

We retreated to the balcony to relative shelter and observe what was going on. My phone was wet and beginning to fail, wet fingers failing to register on the screen but I still managed to get some footage.

the wind continued to build as I looked across the channel at the remains of the houses and boats. Leaning out from the balcony The horizontal rain felt like needles in my face and visibility was deteriorating fast. We retreated indoors and closed the sliding glass door, settling down away from the windows. I stood on the windward side of the patio doors looking north at the storm, noticing the glass of the door flexing and bowing inwards. We retreated into the centre bedroom, which had rooms bordering three sides and the passage that was a wind-tunnel on the forth. It was relatively peaceful there as we looked around in the dimly lit darkness; distant howl, doors banging and sporadic conversation.

By 10 or 10.30 the wind had dropped to a gale and I ventured outside. Ben and Lucy wanted to check on SV Mistress so I tagged along. The sight of the apocalyptic carnage was shocking. It was hard to identify the entrance to TOBY and the Stadium. The place was flattened and we walked over levelled chain-link fencing. toward the leaf-stripped mangroves. People were already out on the street collecting their own belongings or other people’s. The wind was still blowing a healthy 30 or 40 knots or so and it was sometimes hard to maintain balance over the debris.

 

 

 

 

 

Making our way through the stadium grounds, the astroturf underlay was everywhere carpeting the shore promising a soft impact if you fell but cloaking nails and shards beneath for the unwary. A surreal island of astroturf lay in the tangled bare mangroves but SV Mistress survived, still afloat amongst sunken and upturned boats at Time Out Boat Yard (TOBY).

 

 

 

 

 

Lucy and I left Ben busy preparing his boat ready for the following Hurricane, Jose, due to arrive in three days time and to inspect the damage made by solar panel frames that were peeled off the stadium roof and hurled through Mistress’ deck and hull like javelins.

The flooding at Shrimpy’s meant that sea water had corrupted the cistern tanks of drinking water. Drinking water became a priority if we were to survive for more than a week or two. the buckets we collected for flushing the toilets were collected and stored, now using sea water for cleaning, washing dishes and such.

The water flowing back out of the lagoon had a sage green colour and was tainted by diesel for the rest of the day, slowly clearing over the next day or two. we had to become conscious of hygiene as we started to clean the place up.

###

I slept pretty well that night after being up two days straight. Hearing gunshots across the channel drew me to the dockside. Looking across to Sandy Ground, across the channel and out to Marigot Bay revealed nothing, there was only darkness where before there were lights marking the shore and streets of St Martin. This felt like a new dark age.

The morning came peacefully and we stirred into life to continue cleaning up. Jaco came by and relayed his account of his knife edge survival with his family. His shelter barely held together and he was at the mercy of the looters that came out mercilessly after the hurricane. Jaco’s boat, Osler, was not on its mooring and as far as we knew lost. Andy launched a dinghy and revived a waterlogged outboard and we headed off to check on our boats.

Passing the lagoon bridge, we noticed some debris tangles around a column, barely recognisable as a green monohull. Sticks, wires and broken panels lay flat on the surface. Rigging tangled where the bridge control room used to be. I guessed the mast was still up as the vessel was swept under the bridge in the storm.

The Boat yards either side of the channel were a chaotic mess. Catamarans upside down and monohulls on their sides dismasted. The scale of the devastation on the shore and emptiness of the lagoon that was bristling with yachts was breathtaking. My stomach knotted up with emotion as I tried to take it all in. Boats lined the shore either side, well up out of the water. Mount fortune, stripped of its vegetation was half a mile south. Around that peninsular was Providence Bay, home to Glee and my closest neighbours. I tried to resist imagining what I would find there.

 

 

 

 

 

The outboard spluttered it’s way around the peninsular revealing a handful of vessels dismasted still on their moorings a couple of masts sticking out of the water marking their sunken vessels and wrecks scattered on the shore. There was no Glee. We went to check on Yordan who nestled his small vessel between Growler, wrecked in 2014 by Gonzalo and the shore. His hatch was tied down from the outside indicating he had made it out and onto shore. SV Providence was perched high on the causeway bridge next to the road. A sorry looking state but relief to see Gregg on deck doing what he could to secure his vessel.

 

 

 

 

 

We continued the search for Glee south of the causeway past Port De Pleasance, taking in the scale of the destruction and circling round toward the airport back under the bridge, Andy spied Osler, Jaco’s boat, well up on the rocks without its mizzen mast but otherwise looking fairly sound. Andy had been moored near Jaco and we continued round the shore to where he had left her. She wasn’t there but as we moved toward a mast 50 metres away sticking out of the water with a tattered dinghy flying like a flag from it, Andy recognised it as his boat; now sunk in the lagoon. Neither of us showed any emotion for our lost vessels, I felt disconnected and in awe of how different the world had become. Andy lit a cigarette, turned the dinghy north to make our way to Marina Royale, eyes open for a needle in a haystack: Glee in a jumble of beached craft. No joy; of any description. Returning to Shrimpy’s and spying my rucksack had me realise how little I had left. I remember when I was packing thinking “I’ll leave that, I’ll pick it up after…”

Skyran

“Are you here for the poker?” I ask a surfing looking dude sitting back in a chair at Shrimpy’s laundry.
“No I’m here for my laundry.” says John, a long blonde haired single hander from Orkney. We exchange our stories and I tell him about Glee until the poker game is ready to start and he asks if I’d like a trip down the islands on his catamaran. “Why not,” I reply

The next day $20 out of pocket for the stake at the poker game, I’m bounding along the rolling swell of Marigot bay in the bow of John’s dinghy bouncing up and down on top of the sack of newly purchased provisions, bursting open the crisps an peanuts within. We motor round from Marigot to Simpson Bay to get an early jump on the sail to Nevis the next morning. We real out the line and lure along the way and pretty soon a lively fish is jumping and bucking on the line and we catch a spanish mackeral. I watched the fish with some remorse as it shook and shuddered in the bucket while it suffocated to death. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it so I turned my thoughts to other things.

Simpson Bay anchorage was still stacked out for the Heineken Regatta but we settled on the edge of the channel to the lagoon. Filleting the fish was straight forward and made for a delicious tuna type salad.

Up at the crack of dawn we head South East toward Nevis. The forecast was for 25 knot winds east south east, which meant sailing close to the wind. A catamaran typically cannot sail closer than 60 degrees into the wind.

Weighing anchor, we head out into the pre-dawn twilight. Reeling out the fishing line as the sun rose over Atlantic, we catch one barracuda within about half an hour, Clipping the harness onto the stern rail of the bucking and rolling Skyran, hauling the line in and hooking the gills to retrieve the hook from the needle sharp jaws returning it to the sea, then another returning it to the sea again and later a a third that we throw in the bucket.  10 hours of gale force buffeting by sea and wind, we arrived at Charlestown ferry dock settling down to meaty, bony barracuda curry.

Skyran, catamaran heading south from St Martin to Nevis a while back.

Posted by Paul Shepherd on Monday, April 24, 2017

Barracuda is a robust fish which has to be treated with caution as it feeds on fish that graze reefs of a poisonous algae. Ciguatera poisoning can be a real problem. It’s caused by eating fish that have eaten fish that have eaten fish that have eaten this toxic green algae. The toxicity accumulates up the food chain until it reaches the top. Large barracuda are one of the worst as they are a top reef predator. Blue water fish are not so much of a problem as they eat less of the algae eating reef fish that start the chain. If we were to eat the barracuda we had to assess the risks. We were far enough in blue water that this specimen’s diet was light on reef grazing fish and it was small (young) enough to have little accumulation. Additionally, we were at the lower borders of danger. South of Antigua is considered to have less of the particular algae on the reefs and we weren’t that far above that latitude.

We were the only catamaran anchored near the ferry dock. A mile north we could see the masts of the yachts in the mooring field. Checking in revealed that there was a mandatory mooring charge whether you used a buoy or not. There is more than one type of pirate of the Caribbean. there are the outlaws roaming the sea but far more prevalent are the uniformed rule makers of each ‘authority’ on the islands.

The Long Road To Sint Maarten

Stansted: My flight was from Luton but a sanctuary for the Yellow Van had been discovered by Neil, not far from Stansted airport in Essex. I gladly accepted the invitation to travel the day before and spend the night with Neil and Ginger Baker. Neil is an engineer and Ginger doesn’t mind tools in the kitchen and the vice clamped to the kitchen worktop. Neil is the master of the house. Ginger is a cat; Ginger doesn’t mind about much at all.

Gibraltar: I was on the wrong side of the plane to get the view as it rounded the rock on the approach to Gibraltar Airport. 7pm and dark with a cool breeze. Claes picked up my laptop bag as we walked to Joshua moored just over the Spanish border at La Linea. The loose plan was to sail and pick up tips with Claes’ business: Picture Perfect Adventure Sailing. I was happy to go with the flow, so we hung out like old friends even though we had only met a couple of times in Sint Maarten less than a year ago. I had no sleeping bag due to opting for only cabin bag travel. so sleeping in clothes with 2 blankets was the new model of rest in the unusually cool Andalusian nights.

Tarifa: Returning from a day sail in Gibraltar Bay, I saw Dunstan waiting on the pontoon near Joshua. He dropped by and invited us to Tarifa. I was planning on seeing him anyway so this was convenient. Tarifa marks the meeting of the Mediterranean and Atlantic and is always windy – except for the 2 days I was there. Frustrated Kite Surfers flew their kites on the beach hoping for a little more power to take them onto the water. From the battlements of Castillo Guzman de Bueno, you can see the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the buildings on the shore, appearing closer than they actually are, the straits busy with commercial shipping.

The Rock: The Cold wind blows from the north east. There is snow in Estepona just up the coast. I had packed for Sint Maarten so had the bare minimum with me to keep me warm. I set off toward the John Mackintosh Library in Gibraltar and stopped at the Lord Nelson for breakfast, warmth and WiFi. On the way to the library, I noticed steps going up castle street toward the Moorish Castle. My boots like hills so I turned left up hill surfacing out of the shade of the Main Street shops.

Bathed in the warm afternoon sun and sheltered from the north easterly breeze, I wandered up the winding tracks to the cable car station. The nimble footed and light-fingered macaques were at work on the terrace, mugging tourists and tormenting the cafe owners by letting themselves in. I paused to take some pictures and rest my shoulder from the weight of the laptop bag. But now it was all downhill from here. Continuing south along the ridge I came to the Charles the V Wall. A narrow high wall with staircase along the top leading down the Western face of the rock, castellated on the south side but only a thin steel rail on the north. Tall and narrow, it looked like a tightrope walk to me. Douglas lookout was closed for renovation and I continued to O’Hara’s Battery. It was closed since it was after 5pm but this was where the top of the Mediterranean steps emerged from the eastern face of the rock.

At this time of day, the Mediterranean steps are in the shade. The steps looked like they could be steep and exposed to sheer faces but it wasn’t clear looking down from the top as it wove it’s way through the shrubs. Each side of me along the ridge I could see sheer cliffs wondering how steep it could get. I’d go down and have a look and turn back if need be and if I had any energy left.

The Mediterranean Steps are one of the most beautiful walks I have been on; steep in places and level at others as it undulates down and along the rock face. Abandoned gun placements make interesting wild-camping spots for future reference. Sealed up cave entrances guarded the secrets of the Gibraltar Tunnels. Rounding Europa Point into the hazy orange sunset

Malaga: The highway from La Linea to Malaga follows the coast of the Mediterranean in sweeping undulating bends that looked fun for motorcycle or car. I was a passenger, grateful for the lift to the Malaga Airport. I had checked in online and needed to drop no bags so I was straight through to the gate just as it was opening for boarding. 2 hours later I was at Paris Charles De Gaulle.

Paris: There was still ice on the puddles next to the taxiway. I headed for connecting flights and was accosted by a man in a black with an ID lanyard.

  • “Do you have a connecting flight?”
  • “Yes”
  • “Do you need to collect your luggage?”
  • “No.”
  • “Where are your flight details?”
  • “Here.”
  • “No, you still have to go through immigration.”
  • “Then I have to go through security again?”
  • “Yes.”

My flight was for tomorrow and I was hoping to spend the night at the gates since the seating is generally more comfortable. Finding a secluded alcove to myself, I settled down for the night lulled by reassuring announcements that my baggage would be destroyed if I didn’t have it with me. I was next to full height window panes as that whole side of the airport appeared to be, and the cold of the night brought a convection current down across my legs. I dressed in my waterproofs I had brought with me for sailing to add another layer of insulation and slept as best I could.
I was the only one in security as it opened so straight through to the gates with 6 hours to spare.

the flight was full and I was the last one on. An old French couple were next to my window seat. the woman got up to let me through to the window seat but the man remained just looking at me until several requests gradually raising in pitch by his wife. Settling down, I noticed the man’s torso filled the space of his seat which meant that his arm was over the rest to my side. I tried to wedge my head into the window porthole to catch up on some sleep over the 9 hours that I’d be in the air. this was pretty comfortable until the times my head slid forward past the ledge and catching myself before impact on the retractable tray and a sly glance at my neighbour to check whether I should feel embarassed or not.

St Maarten: On the approach to land I was reminded how beautiful the island was. the Sea was as blue as the sky, and both seemed to merge into a pale stripe hiding the line of the horizon and the 27C sunshine was a welcome break from the onset of the long British winter.

Glee was pretty much as I left her – only a little rustier and tidier due to the kindness of the people looking out for her. After a couple of beers and a quick catch-up at Li Far East. Johan gave me a ride out to Glee, as my dinghy had been decommissioned on the Glee’s bow.

There were no sign of any cockroaches so the dumping of food stores and baiting of the food spaces did the trick to eradicate them while I was away. But the main thing was that I was home.

 

Wherever You Go.

IMG_20161104_154250The A420 down to Devizes. The afternoon light was slowly fading into an early autumnal dusk. Road signs lit up in the lights of the cars ahead but not for me at the tail of the automotive snake winding its way through the grey-green Oxfordshire countryside.

The bulbs burned a warm sepia glow in the dials but there was no evidence of headlights in the fading daylight, and I definitely had no full beam. I wouldn’t make Devizes before dark. Plan B was to make Swindon and continue in the morning. The slate grey clouds weren’t helping and it was pretty much dark when I peeled off the main road through the trees lining the road into Swindon and crunched the gravel into the drizzle soaked car park of ‘The Spotted Cow.’ Soup, warmth, WiFi for the evening followed by tucking up under the quilt with an episode of Game of Thrones.

The journey from now on would be day light only and the hours of light were being squeezed by the oncoming winter nights. Leaves dripping percussive rain drops onto the fibreglass roof over my head drummed me to sleep.

Devizes, a late October chill in the damp morning air. It gets harder to emerge from the Yellow Van when Winter is coming.

A fine, rainless morning for helping move Narrowboat Lechuga to new moorings near Bath. The air barely warms to the pale sun just clearing the near-naked hedgerows as I walk the towpath to meet Luchuga an her way from Caen Hill. The canal is low and exposes the muddy bottom like an ebb tide on a shallow estuary. The next stretch is almost full and I see Lechuga emerging out of the top lock at Seend. The lock paddles are left open to top up the empty pounds below and we follow the flow to the bottom of the flight.

By early afternoon, we reached Bradford lock where we stopped for lunch and phoned ahead with an ETA.. News was that the new moorings aren’t ready for another month or so. The owners were leaving the UK the following day… Solution? Lechuga would be my ward and home for a month or so. I love win-wins like this: home on the water for me and security for Lechuga.

C-SIC2 was its name. An orange lifeboat moored up at the service point at Bradford on Avon. Inside, I spotted Jess with her blond dreadlocks, we had worked together a couple of years ago at Bristol Veg Boxes. She had a flat battery and was blocking access to the water point, to the annoyance of the other canal users. Grabbing my tools from the van, I do what I can to extract the battery from its undersized cavity, take it over the bridge to Bradford Wharf for a boost on the mains.

The inside of the lifeboat is cozy and private. Lit by daylight from two hatches in the roof, with the door closed, no-one can see in. The space inside is the size of a small lounge with double bed traversing the space at the bow. We humans are creative creatures, we can make anything into a cozy home.

I settle down for some vegetable stew and red wine while we wait for the battery to take its charge. I could be just as happy in this lifeboat on this canal as a sail-boat in the Caribbean.

Wherever you go, there you are…

 

Angel of the North

angel of the northI’ve been absent from writing for a few months now and getting back into the groove isn’t so easy. My excursion to Newcastle to pay my respects to Debbie Bulman might have had something to do with that. The trip was enlightening in that I unexpectedly felt estranged from the world; neither missed in one part nor welcomed in another. Deb has no physical memorial, her ashes have been scattered on the land and the sea. Her memorial is in the ether, and kicking over the Tynemouth sand lost in thought is as close as I could come to an appropriate prayer.

Retracing faded foot steps from shared adventures led me to what felt like a virtual simulation of a place I remembered. Time had subtly changed the landscape and the characters in only 2 short years. Despite Eileen (Deb’s mother) not wanting to see the yellow van as a reminder of the loss of her daughter, I did get to see Eileen and Deb’s family in the end when she became aware I had parked up a few days here and there, discretely far enough away from the neighbourhood. I may never see Deb’s family again now the link has gone with Deb’s departure. But now, it is done. I’ve said my goodbyes to my Angel of the North and the page turns over and away to a new chapter.

I considered taking a trip up to Scotland from there with no particular plan in mind. But I wasn’t in the mood for it in my own company, and instead headed back down south down the A1 to be close to my own family. I stopped at Newark for some of the calamari that Deb and I used to enjoy. The barman told me that it had been discontinued two menus ago. Two menus, wow! I hadn’t realised I had been gone that long… how long is a menu: months, years?

Exiting Newark on the A46, I received a call that my mother had been taken into hospital.

“Dizzy spells and short of breath. She’s in a ward… something French,” my step father said. It was the EAU (emergency admissions unit).

I was an hour and a half away so I headed directly for Northampton General Hospital. She didn’t know I was coming so it was a nice surprise for her to wake up to my 9pm arrival. 5 days later, she was home with newly fitted stents and improved circulation. But this was another reminder that time takes no prisoners and it’s up to us all to live now in this moment since, at the end of the day, this is all we really have…

Life Without Glee

Breakfast in the fens

Rusty boat, rusty van. It makes no difference. Time passes and life happens wherever you go. So much has happened in the last month that it’s been amazing how much time I’ve fit in feeling lazy and inactive.

Mission number one: to sell the van, is partially complete, well, as it turns out, not to sell it but to share it with a friend and distant relative, which means I can have wheels whenever I’m back in the UK.

Mission two: to pay my respects to dear departed Deb; in progress…

The yellow van got through it’s annual MOT inspection with a little remedial work from my Polish friends in Northampton, Google led me to an affordable insurance plan and the DVLA have continued to take installments for road tax while I’ve been away in the tropics. How do they do that? Time was, proof of insurance and road-worthiness were needed to be eligible to pay road tax but as long as it keeps the red flags down on the government databases I’m happy.

I had already had a week in Northampton and then down to Wiltshire to see friend and author, Jackie Cannon and healer, Gail. Onto Cardiff for an afternoon which turned into two wonderful days and nights with Rob and Cara, a night reconnecting with a neglected cousin, Andrew, in Ebbw Vale, a day with Sue in Gloucester. Back to Wiltshire then to Northampton for dinner with my family before engaging mission number two by heading up to Newcastle upon Tyne.

My good friend Julie said “That will be hard.” I thought nothing of it, but retracing a route Deb and I shared together a couple of years ago has the effect of picking at a scab on an unhealed wound.

IMG_0649

Humber Bridge Country Park, I check my phone as I exit the van. Two missed calls. Eileen, Deb’s mum. I call back as I walk down the trail. She’s been fretting. She’s upset: the thought of seeing me and the yellow van pulling up outside, she expects to see Deb step out of the van too. I’ve never visited alone so this thought had never occurred to me. As I slip the phone back into my pocket, I feel cut off, adrift.

This journey was my way of completion of our relationship: an insignificant punctuation mark at the end of a significant chapter. I had missed the funeral by about 4 months and 6000 miles with the promise that I would visit when I return to the UK.

Here in the woods on the north bank of the Humber, I walk toward the shore between the shade and dappled sun light dancing on the trail in time with the leaves above. Deb would have loved this. It was because of her I was here on my own now. We had been here before but never further than the car park on an overcast day, browsing the leaflets in the visitor centre.

IMG_0647

I order a beer at the Country Park Inn on the bank of the river. Despite my empathy with Eileen, I feel agitated. I don’t realise how much until I telephone my friend, Jackie and try to speak. I retreat to a quiet corner table bathed in the late afternoon sun next to a large window facing the river. I’m choked, my throat is tight and tears start to rise. Why now after so long? The tears release the tension and I become able to talk, so I let them lubricate the conversation. Anyway, no-one else seems to notice…

The phone call ends as do the tears and I feel calm: purged. What now, turn back? I don’t need to be anywhere in particular. Return where. I am baseless, a nomad. I order another beer and look over the river at the ant like traffic crawling across the pencil line of the bridge against the sky. I remind myself, “Am I not free, do I not have all the time in the world?”

Humber Bridge

This pilgrimage is becoming obscured by the fog of uncertainty. I’ll continue north along the east coast up to Newcastle. I don’t necessarily have to visit anyone. I don’t have to be there by Wednesday but I still do need a purpose. For now, being there is enough of a goal to aim for. I will find completion in its own time, maybe not in a certain place on a certain day but perhaps in how I now express my experience of life in the lessons learned on my past adventures with Deb. Completion: part feeling, part decision.

The distance between Northampton and Newcastle is just over two hundred miles and can be made in four hours. I am currently on Day 4 and I’m half way there, exploring the east coast as I go. The weather is fine with warm sunshine and cool calm nights. The sea reminds me of Glee on her mooring in St Martin. How would she fair, weaving around the offshore wind-farms of the British coast? Surprisingly, I don’t miss Glee, or St Martin. I’m conscious that, wherever I am, this is the same adventure – only with different scenery… perfectly playing out as it always does… all I have to do is to relax into it.

A New Dawn (Abandon Ship part 2)

Airport

… the door opened revealing a 79 year old man in green t shirt and khaki shorts draped around inadequate legs and creaking knees. Time has been indifferent, neither cruel or kind, to my father. Time chips away at the days, sneaking in an extra wrinkle here and there and slowly sapping our strength as it passes. But time has added another wrinkle by starting to steal my father’s memories. Stroke induced dementia, is the label the experts have given it. “Come in, son. I’ve only just got up.” I stepped through the doorway ignoring Duke the springy black and white chihuahua jumping up and down to groin height next to me on the carpet.

The script I had mentally prepared fell away like cigarette ash. The cryptic messages over the past weeks that I had assembled like jigsaw pieces to form a picture of reality bore no relation to the experience of the here and now. Apart from the absence of my step mother, It was as if nothing had changed over the five months or so since I was here.

Settling into the yielding sofa next to the window, I was conscious of a new chapter as the page turned in the book of life. Glee was 2000 miles away and, after a day in the hands of civil transportation and a night in a hire car, an unwritten week was ahead of us. Coffee had freshly percolated and I accepted the cup with both hands, like a receiving of a peace offering between tribal chiefs. A proud man is Doug, frustrated by the invisible thief of dementia. He still functions and recalls many old memories, some of which are best forgotten, but things like where car keys are put down, how to print out a document or why he got up to go to the kitchen aren’t commonly retained.

The absence of Michele meant we could talk freely without moderation if we wished but we soon relaxed into periods of comfortable silence.
“Why has Michele fallen out with me?” I asked.
“She thinks you’re a freeloader.” he said.

It didn’t feel true but, still, it crept into my subconscious for later processing anyway.

I smiled as I thought about it. Its probably why she left with his car, taking his credit card and cheque book with her.

Doug’s always been a generous man and always insists on picking up the tab. My mother says he always had plenty of friends when he was on leave from the merchant navy – until his money was spent.

This week would be different. He had been left emasculated in a land where money means almost everything to almost everyone. He was a modern day knight stripped of his sword he had been disarmed and left defenceless.

I carried the sword now; we had money and a car and I was in the driving seat. As a guest, I had always felt like the passenger. Today was a feeling of freedom and possibility. The world was our oyster and to celebrate, we went for lunch and margaritas at the local favourite, Playa Azul Oyster Bar.

Playa Azul

And so the week went on in gentle conversation and shared space and time.

Doug doesn’t socialise too often these days, so I organised a few meetings with a few of his life-long friends. He said he enjoyed these outings but he prefers to stay at home, these days, either alone or with Michele.

To me he looked unhappy with either situation and sometimes drifts away from social engagement with his mind wandering out of the present and into the past or future. Dementia seems to bring with it depression and frustration.

I couldn’t help thinking that his condition could only worsen so I was glad I didn’t take the recent messages and phone calls to not visit literally. If I hadn’t have come, I might have regretted it for the rest of my life.

Jaco, a diver in St Maarten, shared his story of visiting his father, leaving nothing unsaid or undone before passing away shortly after. He was so glad that he thought about it while his own father was still around. Jaco reminded me that we only get one shot. There is no guarantee that any one of us will wake up tomorrow… likely, but still no guarantee. Nothing we value should be put off if it can be done today. There is no going back…

Whatever happens today, I will remember to follow my heart and have no regrets.

Stirring the crushed ice with a straw into his margarita, Doug asks “What do we have to do to be happy, son?”

“Happiness is not a doing, it is a being.” I replied “You take it with you, it’s part of the journey …” and I thought about it some more… later wishing I had been quick enough to follow it up before the moment had passed.

The arrival of something new sometimes stimulates happiness and we mistake whatever that ‘new thing’ is as the source. The source is actually the appreciation that is stimulated from that ‘new thing.’ When the appreciation wears off, the feeling of happiness goes with it. The route to happiness is in gratitude: an appreciation of all that is and all that you have today. It must be harder to be grateful when your memories are slipping away: having the record of your personal life slowly erased… In the absence of gratitude comes wanting: unfulfilled desires attempting to be quenched by the next holiday, new car, new job and whatever is thrown at us by hypnotic TV marketing and culture of conditioning. But all that got thrown on the “I wish I’d have said that at the time” pile…

And so the week slid by day by day, eating Mexican food and drinking American beer in thick ice-frosted glasses in the polar blast of air-conditioned cafe bars under the stifling Texan sun, then getting back to the apartment for an afternoon nap, ignoring the NBC nightly news while eating blue cheese and crackers; and reminiscing on what could be remembered and trying to figure out what couldn’t.

It doesn’t sound much to write home about but one day was blissfully like the other, no pressure to do anything, just to be in each other’s company, read, stay in, go out, whatever… the ultimate freedom, bewildered by choice but going with the flow down the path of least resistance…

“Sorry you keep picking up the tab, Son.” Doug said, as we were finishing off our beers in Soto’s Cantina.

Sotos

“It’s no problem, really. Whatever the pleasure you get in picking up the tab is a pleasure that I can get to enjoy this time. Besides, you gave me this life I have and that’s priceless.”

He laughed but it wasn’t enough for hiding a dissonant look: guilt, embarassment or disempowerment or whatever it was his conditioning had him feel. For me, it felt like the rare opportunity to practice being an adult within our relationship. I took a mental note to remember to leave that space for the relationship with my own sons.

Departing the apartment at noon on the final day was an understated affair. It felt like I was going to Kroger’s for a loaf of bread. I began closing the door on the man and his dog looking back at me through the narrowing gap. “Take care, son. And keep in touch.” Doug said.
“Will do…” I replied, before the door clicked shut.

Silence alone in the car back to the airport has a different flavour to the silence in the company of someone special: silence with an accompanying emptiness. The increasing traffic volume and the slowly extending estimated time of arrival at the airport soon distracted my thoughts to immediate objectives. Tight deadlines have the effect of sharpening focus an elevating anxiety. I don’t mind flying but I dislike airports with their Gestapo like bureaucracy and their subjugating security practices.

billboard

Two hours later, I was through airport security, putting back on my boots, threading my belt back through the loops and scooping my change out of the plastic trays after their journey through the scanner. I had noticed the small sign that gives the option for a manual search rather than being irradiated by the cylindrical body scanners. I had plenty of time, so I had opted for the manual assault: the tiny bit of civil liberty allowed in this process.

TSA

It was only a five minute wait before a TSA agent dressed as an impersonation of a police officer turned up, wearing thin blue latex gloves. I was given the option to go into a private room but I was happy in jeans, t shirt and socks to go through the routine in public. Nobody took any notice, what with being too busy removing shoes, emptying pockets and surrendering nail scissors and half empty bottles of sun cream. To be fair, the TSA agent looked more embarrassed than I did – and the experience wasn’t that intrusive. After the months skinny dipping in the lagoon and showering on the open stern of Glee it seems bizarre at what people should feel embarrassed about, if it’s other than the erosion of our personal freedom.

777 Feet

By the time I settled into the crowded 777 looking out at the flat hazy Houston cityscape receding below me. I wondered if I would ever see my Dad again: if that was the case, our parting had been muted. While it was sad to leave, business was calling back to the UK: a host of loose ends left undone by my impromptu detour to St Maarten in February – and a chance to see some valued friends and family.

Drop off

7.45am I stepped outside Heathrow’s terminal 5 onto the elevated passenger drop off into the crisp 55°F breeze and pale English sunrise and sat on the curb.

“Look out for the Ford Galaxy,” Terry had told me. I could barely remember what their’s looked like as Ford Galaxies of all ages and colours came in, spilt people and luggage out onto the concourse, and drove away again one after another. Twenty minutes later, I could see Margrit’s curly haired silhouette through the reflected clouds in the windscreen as the car exited the top of the ramp and pulled up to the curb next to me.

Dropping my rucksack into the back seat and clipping on the seat belt in the front, we drove away and my eyelids began to feel heavy. It was a new dawn welded onto yesterday without the usual separation of a night’s sleep. My body was telling me it was bed time but the scenery told me it was already tomorrow morning.

This dawn was another marker; the end of something past and a clearing for something ready to be written…