DEATH TO THE TOURISTS
Inspired by a trip to Canary Islands.
1. Victoria sponge
December sunshine is easy to find –
It lives in the thirtieth tab.
After losing all will to choose,
Or look at more islands,
Or ever get on a plane,
The thirtieth tab
Has dunes, and dormant volcanoes, and waves
And looks nothing like home
So you book.
Please tick here to confirm that you’ve read T&Cs
And accept you’re a tourist
And all that entails.
Shame: a small price for +20 in winter.
Never go to sleep excited or scared;
You’re feeding the animals of your subconscious mind.
I did; the punishment was being trapped
In a water park on Fuerteventura
With slides in High-Vis Yellow
And pools of Listerine Blue.
Unshutuppable children, their meaty red parents,
Suncream and ice cream and probably piss
And a food court
A Great British food court
Haddock and chips fried deeper than a gambler’s regret
Sold by honest locals
Free cerveza with your second kebab
Try our full English, por favor
(their English is better than your Spanish will ever be)
And this woman
Black hair, black eyes
Shouting, ‘Just buy the goddamn Victoria sponge!’
Tired hands, desperate lips
She’s had enough of Newcastle-upon-North-Atlantic.
Lady, I’ll take it
Here’s all my change
But please quit
Burn the Union Jack apron
Please go home to your children
I can’t deal with dream shame
On every tourist’s behalf.
The goddamn Victoria sponge
Tasted of guilt.
I woke up.
Welcome to Fuerteventura —
How fortunate we are to have you...
There are no words,
No words, that is, you’d understand
Please make yourself at home
You know the rules
The guest is always right
And speaking of right,
When crossing roads
Look left — this isn’t London.
You Brits, not keen on switching
So good at colonising yet so bad at learning a few words
Would it kill you to buy your agua and cerveza in our tongue?
And speaking of what would,
I’ve changed my mind.
Just feel at home:
Look right then left.
Perhaps a rental car
Driven by another Brit
Will hit you.
Just enough to put you off this place.
Holiday makers, you make nothing.
But I forget myself —
Bienvenido, enjoy your stay,
And careful on the road.
Tiago the surf instructor
Face plastered with extra thick sun cream
Hair styled by the relentless wind
Driving to the beginners’ surf spot,
His Land Rover a a crash course in onomatopoeia:
Rattle upon squeak upon Portuguese cussword.
No, I didn’t mean goat, but that rock was a bitch.
And then — wind, wetsuit, wave upon wave, whacked over the head with a board, why is this so hard?
We talk after class.
Where do you come from?
Portugal, then Bristol.
For my degree.
What was it?
Surf: Science and Tech.
And now Fuerteventura,
Teaching office plankton the subtle art of pretending the ocean can be tamed.
Worst thing about it?
Giving away the waves,
To those who can’t feel them,
Those who can’t ride them,
Those who can’t even see.
Imagine serving your favourite dish to the pigs
While starving, he says.
That’s my job.
Tiago, I’m sorry.
Oh, come on, he says.
Don’t be silly.
Have some more of my bread
I’m bored of it, bread for weeks
Waiting for my test results
Something wrong with my stomach,
Can’t hold anything down.
I’ll see the doctor next week.
I hope she says it’s nothing
Or that I’ve a month left to live.
Then I can stop teaching
Grab my board
And feast on the waves
‘Til the ocean eats me.
Calima is a hot, oppressing dust and sand-laden, southerly to southeasterly, sometimes easterly wind in the Canary Islands region.
Sat in an airless coach,
Katrina the tour guide
Is ageless — not like precious wine,
More like the now calcified rosemary soap you got for Christmas one year.
And placeless too: her voice a mix of four languages, two diacritical signs per breath
She came here on holiday, took a sick friend’s place, just for a week
Thirty years ago.
Sinewy legs, for she has trodden all over Fuerteventura;
And the island returned the favour, so —
Sinewy legs, and a sinewy heart.
There’s seventeen of us here — not yet too tanned, three and a half phrases of Spanish each
But really, she’s on her own, switching the air con on and off, on and off (“it only works that way”)
And please, what air?..
But Katrina doesn’t need to breathe
Or listen, or think
She has done this before
“On your left” and “on your right” are her only mantras;
Calima, her only enemy.
It’s the wind from the Sahara – relentless, dusty and dry
It’s just so useless, she says, more useless even than my second husband;
At least he gave me a son.
Calima only gives her a dry cough
And a reason to rage.
We’ve had no rain in months — just calima, calima, calima.
Look around you, it’s all dried out.
Not a rabbit, not a goat in sight,
Have you tried eating dry weeds?!
I have a feeling she has.
Worst of all, it’s no good for Marlena,
Katrina’s only true love.
Calima dulls her fur
And blows dust in her frozen-lake-coloured eyes
She’s a husky, born for the Arctic
She needs snow, not white sand
She needs rain and I can’t give her that.
Katrina’s voice changes.
She’s already ten
But I give her the best, she says
Best dog food you can buy on these dusty Dog Isles
And omega 3 twice a day —
I want her to outlive me.
But Katrina, who could outlive you?
The way you talk about the drought in the twenties,
I know you were there,
Same age as now,
Planting potatoes, carrying heavy buckets of water,
Praying for the rain that won’t come
Cursing calima in Serbian, English, German and Greek
Singing to the plants
But still they wither
The colour green does not live on Fuerteventura.
“Does not live” is Katrina’s phrase.
My parents don’t live anymore, she says
As far as she’s aware, they’re doing something —
Just not living.
Is she living?
Oh yes, but not on this coach
She starts to live after the first ten kilometres of a hike
After Marlena’s has had her second bowl of premium bottled water
But on Wednesdays it’s “on your left” and “on your right”
In two languages
Which translates to
“I’ve got a beautiful lake-water-eyed husky at home
Waiting, whining her dog song of love and loss,
And all of you, who don’t want rain
For your cultureless, pointless, godless holiday
For all I care, let calima take you and this coach.”
“Do you use a hearing aid?”
“Are you wearing a hearing aid?”
“No, but it looks like I should be.”
She doesn’t smile back.
“Any body piercings? Shrapnel injuries? Coloured contact lenses?”
“Have you had an MRI before?”
Her question makes me think of that meme. “Have you been to Nando’s before?” — “Bitch, please.”
Yes, I’ve had MRIs before. I have one every year, just before Christmas.
I used to live on the coast, and my local MRI unit was in a resort town. God’s waiting room, they called it. It was where pensioners moved after city life got a bit too much. Local old ladies were outraged when the dilapidated tea rooms had been turned into a modern art gallery. They had campaigned against it with all the fervour of unyielding, deaf-mute conviction that only comes with old age, but modernism won, and cream tea was now twice the price and served by graphic design students with manbuns.
The first time I came down, I was greeted by a fox. It was rolling in the wet grass right in front of the hospital ward. There were dog’s toys scattered around the lawn. Various balls, a fluorescent yellow bone, and a pink-glazed rubber donut. The fox sat up, and we looked at each other for a moment. Then I walked in.
“There’s a fox outside,” I said to the receptionist.
“That’s Ginger Snap. He lives here.” she replied, as if having a pet fox was the most normal thing for a hospital.
I took a photo of Ginger Snap on my way out, but it was too grainy and his eyes shone red because of the flash.
I didn’t see him on my next few visits, but his toys were still there.
My new hospital is in North London. It takes an hour on the Underground, followed by an endless walk across a flat rain-soaked park and then around all of the hospital wards. MRI is next to A&E. Turn left if your visit has been planned months in advance; turn right if being here today was the last thing you’d expected. Mine is a planned visit, but since I have decided to never have cancer again, this annual appointment isn’t at all stressful: just a grey December afternoon, usually on a Saturday, and always in the rain.
Christmas and hospitals are a bad combination. After filling out the forms I study the décor: a scanty plastic tree with a few mismatched baubles standing next to the reception desk; a music Santa toy on the stand; blue and white Christmas lights flashing in a neurotic rhythm.
“Please leave your valuables in the locker and change into this robe for me.”
I am then taken to a room for a contrast liquid injection. It’s a cluttered little alcove separated from the corridor by a pleated blue curtain made from the same material as my robe.
I present my arms to the nurse. She is not impressed with my veins.
“Sorry, they all hid away after the chemo. They do come out eventually. Try the right one.”
She puts a cannula in and secures it with a complex combination of plasters. Handing the syringe with contrast liquid to me, she asks me to wait and disappears behind the curtain. I start looking around. “Alcoholic 2% hydrochloride. As recommended by Epic and Nice guidelines.” I wonder if Epic and Nice are actual surnames of the people behind the regulations. Did they team up purely to be able to put those two names on 200-sachet boxes of disinfectant wipes for years to come? Did they try to change the order to Nice and Epic? I wish I could hear that conversation. There’s a sticker on one of the rolling carts reading ‘MR NON-MAGNETIC.” Just as I start imagining what Mister Non-Magnetic might look like, the nurse comes back and takes me to the MRI room.
‘You’ll have to take your boots off.” I’m still holding the syringe in my right hand, so this takes forever. It’s followed by a series of simple instructions. Sit up. Now lie down. Lower. Lower. Perfect. This will take thirty minutes. Try not to move. It will get noisy. Here are some headphones. Christmas classics, Disney soundtracks or Kenny G? The only album my old seaside MRI place had was by Jack Johnson, and I still can’t listen to it. “No music, thank you.” Hold this. It’s an emergency pump. Squeeze it if there’s a problem. The emergency pump is a comforting oblong shape in smooth rubber, begging to be squeezed. I almost wish I was claustrophobic, just to have a reason to press on it as hard as I can.
The bed is rolled into the MRI tube. It would look like a space station interior if it wasn’t for the anaemic pink of the walls, and the ambiguously pale green of the blanket. A system of mirrors lets me see my hands stretched out over my head. Walls, blanket and my hands: that is my view for the next half hour. Frida made multiple paintings of her feet when they were all she could see for months, bedridden after the bus accident. Perhaps I could paint my hands, except that I would need them to paint with — and the rules of the MRI game don’t allow movement. Also, I can’t draw.
The MRI machine begins its simple two-tone recital. It’s more rhythmic than musical, but the tenth time around, it feels almost soothing, mesmeric in its repetitiveness. My brain goes into something of a zen state: a brief annual meditation. At some point a nurse comes in and injects the contrast liquid. Every year it has the same two effects: puts a strange chemical taste in my mouth, and sends an inexplicable warm rush of blood to my groin. This leaves me in a strange state of unwanted arousal, but my mind quickly reconciles itself with this intervention, and I spend the remaining ten minutes inside the tube thinking indecent thoughts. By the time I’m pulled out of the machine, my reactions are slower, breathing deeper, and the nurse’s words barely reach me through a heavy, slow-moving fog of lust. The cannula is taken out. I change back into my clothes and look into the unframed rectangle of the bathroom mirror lit by pale blue hospital lights. The face rest has left a deep red line across my forehead. I sit down by the reception desk and pull out a book, waiting for the line to fade. Five minutes later, I am still running over the same sentence without taking in a single word — a hazy, pointless attempt at reading. After fifteen minutes I get up, peel the cotton wool and plaster construct off my arm, and say goodbye to the receptionist. With the quietest of whirs, the automatic doors slide open. For a moment, the cold, starless silence of the late winter afternoon stares into the sterile, fluorescent silence of the hospital. Breaking their gaze, I cross the border between worlds, the heels of my boots counting one-two-three-four on the tiled floor before being muted by the invisible wet leaves underneath, and head back to the station.