You could do as much or as little as you liked. That was the
appeal of the place. Activities were laid on for those who wished to join in, but there
was no pressure on those who did not. Thus, a stressed-out pharmaceuticals executive who
wanted to spend his weeks holiday reading trash novels could do so while his wife
attended aerobics classes and perhaps took out a small boat when the wind freshened after
lunch. Their children, meanwhile, would be looked after by a fleet of highly qualified
nannies and nursery workers.
The set-up suited comfortably off hard-working couples
who needed time to unwind and found the rigours of childcare incompatible with relaxation.
But the resort was also popular with childless couples, who appreciated the fact that
other peoples kids were kept out of the way. Whether youve been unable to
reproduce, or simply chosen not to, other peoples children are rarely ideal company.
The day of the performance began like any other.
The sun rose around 6.30am, although most residents
didnt become aware of it until a couple of hours later. Breakfast was taken outside.
A hundred tables in a grid, all laid with starched white linen, filling the space between
kitchens and pool. There was a canopy that could be pulled across when it rained, which it
did infrequently but spectacularly, accompanied by an electrical storm. The first meal of
the day was a leisurely business for all except those intent on water-skiing, which kicked
My wife and I chose a table close to the pool and
Eleanor watched the peaceful undulations of the waters surface while a beautiful
young waitress brought us coffee, croissants and fruit. I sat with my back to the pool and
observed the steady influx. I saw the Television Actor and his wife pick a table in the
shade. I had lost count of how many days we had been at the resort we had entered
that phase of any holiday when time becomes meaningless but it was long enough to
have put names to a lot of faces. Fictitious ones, of course, since we hadnt
actually met and spoken to anybody apart from exchanging the briefest of pleasantries. The
Television Actor bore a resemblance to a rising small screen star married to a slightly
more famous film actress. He enjoyed the same kind of prematurely greying good looks and
gently expressive features, defaulting to an amused half-smile. His wife was not
particularly attractive and compounded the misfortune by wearing garishly mismatched
combinations a floaty dress over homemade cut-offs, a Hawaiian shirt with
floral-print shorts but husband and wife seemed comfortable in each others
At the table next to our own, the Reading Man and his
wife sat down. The Reading Man had started the holiday promisingly with a fêted literary
thriller by a young Scottish woman writer, but as the week had progressed, his books had
become progressively trashier and correspondingly thicker. Still, though, he appeared with
a different one each morning. I read the name on the cover. A successful British crime
writer, if not one I had ever read. The Reading Man was already a good thirty pages in.
His wife stared beyond the pool at the haze over the mirror-smooth turquoise sea. The
slightest of muscular spasms betrayed her impatience, which failed to register with her
husband. Printed on the sleeve of the Reading Mans T-shirt was the web address of a
pharmaceuticals business, almost certainly his own.
The resort was exclusive, prohibitively expensive, and
it was safe to assume the logos and URLs on the polo shirts and baseball caps of most of
the middle-aged male residents were advertising their own companies. Any labels on their
wives clothes bore the names of top designers.
The Queen Bee (B for bitch, Eleanor had
said on the first evening) entered with her three daughters, their father tagging along
behind. The Queen Bee was a statuesque blonde in her mid-40s who always dressed and made
herself up with extreme care. Her daughters ranged between 14 and 18. She smiled rarely,
presumably to discourage the development of facial lines, yet every day she occupied a
sunlounger by the pool from the moment breakfast was finished until either the sky clouded
over or lunchtime arrived, whichever came sooner. Her daughters arranged their long, lithe
bodies around her, similarly stretchered under the fierce sun, while their father sat at a
table in the bar area, smoking cigarettes and studying the pictures in a magazine devoted
to walking shoes and climbing boots.
We had noticed the Queen Bee leaving the plane on
landing at the nearby international airport surrounded by her family and then again on the
evening of our arrival at the resort. Once we had unpacked, we had come down to the bar
and ordered cocktails. Like everyone else, we turned our chairs to face the sea, as if
awaiting the start of some kind of spectacle. The Queen Bee appeared with her youngest
daughter. They passed swiftly through the bar on their way to the hotel reception,
mothers brisk stride requiring daughter to trot alongside. Her face a mask of
annoyance, the Queen Bee was berating her daughter, too angry to lower her voice for
proprietys sake. The snatch we heard was dopplered like a police siren:
ruined my holiday before its even begun
Once breakfast was over, my wife took a beach bag over
towards the lines of loungers and sun umbrellas that ran parallel with the waters
edge and what passed for a high-tide mark. I was intending to go for a walk as far as the
perimeter fence at the far end of the beach. First I helped myself to a second cup of
coffee and watched as Eleanor made her way slowly across the beach, looking around her at
residents who were staking out their territory for the morning. The light poured through
the sarong she wore wrapped around her waist allowing me and anyone else who might
be looking to appreciate the length and deceptive youthfulness of her legs.
When Eleanor had passed out of sight, I drained my
coffee cup and collected my baseball cap and key. I would go back up to the room before
heading out. Walking between the tables, I was surprised to see the Crossword Man sitting
alone on the edge of the grid and altered my route to pass directly by him. Head down,
silver pen gripped in meaty right hand, he was solving a big puzzle in a paperback book
full of them.
The Crossword Man was another, like the Queen Bee,
whom we had noticed before the holiday had even begun. At Heathrow Airport, he had been
ahead of us in the queue to check in. The flight was delayed, we had read from the
monitors, but the Crossword Man then, of course, we had not yet given him the name
appeared neither to speak nor read English and he was trying to make sense of the
check-in clerk, who merely turned up the volume and slowed down her delivery as she
repeated herself: The flight is delayed by two hours. If you take this voucher to
any of the restaurants in the departure lounge, you can get a complimentary
The Crossword Man was drawing attention to himself.
Firstly by his stubborn refusal to leave the check-in desk until he understood what was
being said, and secondly by his dress. In spite of the early start and the somewhat chilly
temperatures for late April, he had elected to travel in his holiday clothes, an orange
and white Hawaiian shirt and beige shorts that were a size too small. Snorting and
shrugging in typically Gallic fashion, he kept saying, Je comprends pas, je
comprends rien, looking around for support.
In schoolboy French, I did my best to put him in the
picture. Placated, he wandered off to claim his complimentary petit-déjeuner.
I was surprised to see him still working at his
crossword, because usually by this time he was to be seen walking in the sea. Twice a day,
straight after breakfast and just before dinner, he would walk, chest deep, in the sea in
a straight line parallel to the shore. He would start at one end of the resort and make
his way to the other, a distance of about half a mile, and then come back.
As I passed by his table on the edge of the grid, I
took a sly look at a creased manilla envelope that lay on the table next to his crossword
book. It seemed as if he might have been using the envelope to protect the book. Perhaps
it was the very envelope in which the volume had been sent to him. I was able to read the
name and part of the address: M. Jean-Daniel Lang, 1020 Bruxelles.
Upstairs in our room, I stripped off and took a
shower. I stood in front of the full-length mirror inspecting my body with a critical eye.
The hair on my chest was turning a little grey. I was thickening around the middle. Some
of the male residents with whom I had played beach volleyball were completely relaxed
about removing their T-shirts and exposing the evidence of their high living. I
wasnt doing too badly myself, but I would remain covered up. Wrapping a towel around
me, I walked through the bedroom to the balcony overlooking the sea. Because of the trees
in the foreground, I couldnt see Eleanor, but I did spot the Crossword Man or
Jean-Daniel Lang, as I would now have to call him pushing his bulk through the
water. Because he walked where it was deep, right on the edge of the shelf just before it
fell away into the dark, he encountered a considerable amount of resistance. His habitual
activity provided him with rigorous exercise.
I didnt see Eleanor until lunch. She had dozed
in the morning, she told me. I told her I hoped she had used the sun cream.
Where did you get to? she asked me.
I walked down the beach, I said, pointing.
There are some rooms down there, as you know, but beyond that theres a patch
of scrub and then a chainlink fence. I followed that down to the beach where you climb up
a rocky incline and guess what you see when you get to the top?
What do you see? asked Eleanor, as she
signalled to a waiter that he should bring us a bottle of wine.
Theres a little inlet, with a small boat
tied up, and then the beach continues for a mile or so until those mountains you can see
at the end of the bay. On the beach in the distance I saw some locals.
So real people do live here, then?
We had seen little sign of them on the bus ride from
They were too far away for me to see them in any
detail. It was very strange. It reminded me of Eastern Europe, seeing people going about
their lives on the other side of the frontier, as if
As if what?
I dont know. As if they lived normal lives
just like us.
Eleanor gave a sharp laugh as she poured two glasses
The Reading Man, she said, as she stood
the bottle, streaming with condensation, in the middle of the table.
I turned around slowly. The Reading Man and his wife
were three tables away. She was staring at a point over his head, while he remained
oblivious, his nose buried in his book, which he was now more than a third of the way
I saw the Queen Bee, said Eleanor.
She and her daughters occupied the umbrella next to mine this morning.
I thought you were asleep, I reminded her.
Not all the time.
We went and got our starters from the buffet, our
plates piled high with cold meats and chunky beetroot. The food was all paid for in
advance and we would leave at least half of it. As we returned to our table we passed
Jean-Daniel Lang, whose book was folded open at a new puzzle next to his plate.
Why does a single Frenchman come here?
Eleanor asked once were were sitting down. He doesnt seeem to know anyone, or
make any effort to get to know anyone. I mean, why doesnt he go to a resort run by a
Hes Belgian, darling I said.
Not that that answers your question, but he is Belgian and his name is Jean-Daniel
Lang. He lives in Brussels.
I see. Eleanors smile told me she
believed I was still playing the game, inventing an identity for the Crossword Man.
Hes a widower, I went on. He
used to come here with his wife, who was English. They lived in Crawley. After she died he
moved back to Brussels, but carried on coming here. He solves crosswords because
well, because he can.
So hes not a paedophile, then, come to
ogle the adolescents?
Absolutely not. The only time he looks up from
his crossword book is when hes walking in the sea.
Darling, if he had been married to an
Englishwoman and living in Crawley, Eleanor argued after a few moments pause,
wouldt he be able to speak pretty good English? Especially given his love of
His English is quite good actually, I
said. He was just pretending at Heathrow. Winding the woman up. He understood
perfectly well what was going on.
Eleanor didnt bother to reply. I could see that
she was bored. I was bored as well. Everyone was bored. Perhaps that was the point. She
pushed her plate away and poured herself another glass of wine. I waited a moment after
she had put the bottle down before picking it up and filling my own glass. If she noticed,
she gave no sign.
What will you do this afternoon, darling?
I dont know, darling. Doze? Read?
At home, if we called each other darling,
the word would be loaded, the delivery making it clear that irony was in play. Here, it
became reflexive. Part of the routine. As much a function of habit as wearing flip-flops
around the pool, or dressing up for dinner.
At the front of the resort, away from the sea, there
was a court for boules or pétanque. On my way back to our room after
lunch, I heard a metallic click followed by a deep, theatrical groan, and turned to look
out of the open window. Two floors below, Jean-Daniel Lang was playing boules
with Michel, the lone Frenchman on the resort staff, a student on his gap year.
Michels ball appeared to have struck one of Jean-Daniels, knocking it aside
and sidling up to the cochonnet. Jean-Daniel protested good-naturedly as he threw
a decent final ball, then ambled up the side of the court to inspect his position. I
watched Michel take aim, then dispatch his own last ball with a wayward flick of the
wrist, sending it right to the end of the court. Jean-Daniel seemed pleased and stepped
inside the court to measure the relative distances of his own nearest ball and that of
The distances were similar, although it was clear from
my vantage point that Michels was very slightly closer, but I noticed Jean-Daniel
shrug as he compared them on the ground. Michel pointed to his own ball and shook his
head, kicking it away with his deck shoe. Jean-Daniel looked satisfied as he rounded up
Michel explained that he was on beach duty and
Jean-Daniel nodded. The two shook hands and parted. I went to our room where I changed
into my swimming shorts, thinking that I would divide the afternoon between the pool and
Residents began taking their seats in the bar area
soon after six. Eleanor and I had not seen each other since lunch, despite my having spent
half the afternoon on the beach. Our paths had not crossed. Having been up to the room to
change into a linen suit and open-neck shirt, I chose a chair in the bar and pulled up
another one next to it. Both were facing the beach. I angled mine so that I could watch
the bar as well as enjoying the view. When Eleanor finally appeared -- long after the
Reading Man and his wife, the Television Actor and a new character, the Emeritus
Professor, who affected a straw Panama and smoked thin cigars I watched her looking
around the bar, her gaze skating over me three times before she spotted me.
Didnt you recognise me? I asked as
she settled into the chair alongside mine.
After a while everyone begins to look the
same, she said.
Good afternoon? I asked.
Not all afternoon.
Did you read? she asked.
No, I feel somehow let off the hook by the
Reading Man. As if hes reading for all of us.
Hows he getting on?
Hes just there.
He was sitting a few chairs along, reading a
surprisingly thin book, about the size of a theatre programme. His wife sat straight
backed, staring out to sea and cooling herself with a fan improvised from two or three
postcards that she must have bought from the hotel shop.
Maybe he finished his book for today and
didnt want to start another big one until tomorrow? I suggested.
The Queen Bee has surpassed even her own high
standards, Eleanor said, looking over at the bar, where the blonde mother-of-three
was leaning on one leg to pick up a drinks order from the bar, accentuating the
transparency of her dress, which was pulled revealingly taut over her impressive behind.
Now thats how to wear a thong,
The Queen Bee carried her tray of cocktails towards
the lines of chairs facing the beach. Her husband, who I now knew was called Stewart since
we had shared a beach volleyball court in the afternoon, put down a pair of binoculars
with which he had been scanning the horizon, and took the tray. The girls helped
themselves to their drinks, smiling over the little umbrellas and pieces of spiked fruit.
I looked beyond them towards the beach. Some clouds
had formed, running across the top of the sky where they gathered the deep velvet oranges
and russet-pinks of the impending sunset, and trailing faint skirts either side of the
main part of the beach. Following one of these wispy drapes of cloud down to the sea, I
saw Jean-Daniel Lang already chest deep in the water, walking in a straight line parallel
with the shore.
His chest angled slightly one way, then the other, he
forced his bulk step by step through the deep water. A hush fell across the rows of hotel
guests sitting facing the sea. I watched the Television Actor lean over to accept a nut
from the outstretched hand of his wife, without either of them taking their eyes off the
Crossword Man. The remaining free seats were quickly taken as residents stepped away from
the bar, drinks in hand. The distance between the line he was walking and the rows of
seats in which we were all sitting was perhaps as much as fifty metres, so I wasnt
sure if I could make out the expression on his face. I wasnt even sure if there was
one. I would have said that he looked the same as usual: impassive, unselfconscious, even
self-involved. He must have been concentrating on the mechanics of his sea walk, taking
care over the placing of his feet.
He was just over halfway past the main part of the
beach, where small waves lapped on to a slight rise in the level of the sand, creating the
impression of a proscenium, when he stumbled. Aware of a collective intake of breath, I
waited for Jean-Daniel to right himself and continue, but he had lost his footing and
obviously failed to make contact with the sandy bottom. He began slowly to topple, his
arms wheeling, grasping at air, then to subside. He was falling seawards. Maybe at first
his left foot had still been touching bottom, but he seemed now to have lost even that
Cant he swim? whispered a voice in
the row behind me.
Apparently not, came a hissed reply.
Thats why he walks in the sea. He likes going in the water, but he cant
Langs head disappeared under the water and I
sensed the audience around me sit up even straighter in their seats. The Queen Bee reached
out and took her husbands binoculars, which she trained on Lang. His head appeared
above the surface, and, despite the distance, we could now all see the look on his face.
It was one of surprise. And then it was gone again. A gentle swell washed over him and
this time he didnt come bobbing back up.
We waited. And waited. But the sea had closed over his
head and was not about to give him up. He had gone.
There was a moment of absolute silence, then the first
clap was heard. A woman in the second row stood up as she applauded. Within a few seconds,
the people around her started to join in, clapping and, in some cases, getting to their
feet. I saw the Television Actor and his wife stand up together, clapping furiously, their
faces wreathed in smiles.
Bravo! Bravo! shouted the Emeritus
Professor as he, too, rose to his feet.
The Reading Man, his books forgotten for once, was
showing his appreciation. Even his wife was standing and contributing to the applause, the
tension flowing out of her facial muscles, allowing her to grin.
I turned to look at Eleanor, and found myself looking
at her waist, because she too had jumped up to applaud.
Slowly, I rose and followed suit. I glanced alongside
at Eleanor, who smiled at me with unrestrained joy.