To The Hotels of My Youth

It must have been late spring when my mother stopped off at the travel agents on our way to the village school. My brother and I with our backpacks, the youngest in his pram, navy, dark green, on his belly, the sun overreaching the high street, the smell of unfolding blossom, it was all fresh. Mornings like that, I remember fondly. There was that young mother migration towards the primary school; everything and everyone flowing in a single direction, along the main road that ran through the village, into the churchyard down to the school gates. She browsed a moment, not long, and pulled a brochure from the shelf, smiled then presented it to us: a photograph of six children by a swimming pool in somewhere hot in the middle of January. My brother and I smiled and then laughed. We were models now.

The airport at that time of year was always blue. Outside its enormous windows it was dark, it was cold, and it was always blue; no matter what weather Stansted would lie under that day, the sky at that time of the morning was blue. My father woke us early. Inside, the fluorescence was exciting. Back then, aeroplane flights, that roar of engines on the runway, it did something to me.

And the airport on the other side was in another language, all the sweets unrecognisable, the TV characters incomprehensible. The smell of the air informed one, in no uncertain terms, that they were somewhere different.

The hotel was always far away, on the edge of town, cut in white stucco against a backdrop of dead volcanoes. The pavement there had a pattern to it and a colour like bars of white chocolate, endless bars of white chocolate. It did not swerve or groan like English pavements, but ran in straight lines, without weeds or moss. It had a dry glisten to it. Cacti and succulents sprung out the ground. Pale green, and rosy like warm skin just before a bath. So much of it was white and dark green, the buildings and foyer. Air conditioning hummed. All the people had a colour on their skin. At most, the blue eyes of foreigners was pronounced even more from the dark sockets of leathery cheeks.

But it was the smell most of all. It was the smell that overwhelmed me then and rushes to me now. It was the inimitable scent of Atlantic island air, of suncream and coconuts, the condensation of air conditioning, of hot draughts, of lingering tobacco smoke, of swimming trunks that had spent six months at the bottom of a Mancunian cupboard. In the morning I arose at dawn, too eager to sleep. The sun was still rising, and it rose quick, but it was there, and it seemed like I had never felt it like that on my skin before. Keeping sneaky, I explored the hotel. An old man in a shirt that did not cover his belly made slow steps to the cigarette machine next to the pool table and fingered out pesetas to the sum of a cartoon camel. The camel was the same colour as his skin and it had sunglasses. The camel smoked, too. I watched the old man take the blue packet outside. The blue packet was not the blue of the English airport but the blue of the African morning. He leaned against the white stucco border of a cactus bed and lit up. He did not see me, but I watched him. It was the smell of him that ran through me then and runs to me now. It was the smell of suncream not yet dried, of a hot brown cigarette and four days left.
The sea was never as cold as the hotel pool. The sea was never as blue as the hotel pool. My brother and I always enjoyed it more than my parents did. My mother sunbathed, her Indian melatonin arising out the back of an unhooked bikini. My father’s freckles coalesced and he squinted. He was slimmer but he looks the same to me now as he did then. He is crouched over my brother’s shaded pram, who is undressed and squirming. My brother and I make friends. It was always the way that we speak to other children and learn their names, their accents and a new part of England we did not know. There are Germans, too, who we do not understand but only the war and ‘Fuckin Germans got up at the crack of dawn and put their towels over every sunbed again!’

The town is hot. Where are all the Spanish children? My parents talk of a siesta. So many of the wares are out of the shops, on the pavement, racks and shelves, baskets and so forth. My mother tries on sunglasses; my father comments yay or nay, calls me away from the road – ‘Cars drive on the other side here!’ – and my mother uncertainly—‘Doesn’t suit me’ and eases my brother’s pram along the bar of white chocolate. Every restaurant serves chips that come with a pitifully limp salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. Our forearms stick to the tables. In the distance are the hills of dead fires and blackened soil.

One year my brother and I befriended a set of non-identical twins called Rebecca and Pippa. They had white skin and black hair. Many young children have a lust for life, but theirs seemed magnificent, even to my infant mind. We spent mornings fooling in the pool and the afternoons we drank soft drinks and curled up with each other on the other’s sofa to watch Spanish TV. When our parents were not watching, we kissed and put our skin against one another’s and giggled like cirrostratus. Their father spent all day cycling around the island, their mother sunbathing. We were obsessed for a week. My parents have a photograph on the wall of Pippa standing next to the pool bar; she is laughing and her mouth is wide open and her black eyes are wide; the old Kodak is blown-out; she must be in her mid-thirties by now; tell her she is still remembered.

As we grew, my brother fragranced into holiday romances as my immature self hid away, watching enviously as he courted young women from York or Sheffield, somewhere I did not have to go back to. In those photographs on the wall, you may see me in the background. Much else remained the same.

After my mother had put away bowl after bowl of gazpacho like a koala on eucalyptus, we would take daytrips – groan! – away from the pool to visit the island’s few attractions. We were on another planet, Mars. We observed buckets of water poured into the earth, only for them to shoot out a moment later as though the reliable ground beneath our feet had consumed something wholly offensive.

It was the evening, after we had been pulled from the pool by our retiring parents in a coordinated exodus from the pool area to stuffy rooms with balcony curtains swirling, our muscled bones were tired but our hearts were still craving more. It was in those dark circles of the hotel’s disco that we collected. All hyped up on coke and ice creamed fruit salad.

After it all, leaving those new friends and that environment of pleasure was a huge assault upon the childish mind! The ride to the airport – different symbols underlined by a different language – one stared out the window of flashing pebble and sharp landscape. The aeroplane was less appealing, even the rumble of its engines.