Thursday, 11 April 2013

A Singular Man – part 4




     
From that point on, the holiday took off like a rocket heading into space. During the day we went our separate ways but from late afternoon, like bees round a honey pot, we gathered round Alan and exactly like flowers, we blossomed. On our last night, we all went to dinner, including several of the poolside couples, who had come to the conclusion that we were having more fun than they were. 
 
Not the gargantuan ladies, however, of whom one was a vicar. Sadly, I came to the reluctant conclusion that she was progressing up the same avenue as the large florid gentleman.
 According to her, she had been preparing a sermon one night and had felt someone sitting behind her. Turning round she saw Jesus and had said to him, something like, 'These are your words, Lord, you should read them not me.' 
 
I didn't have the nerve to ask why she hadn't asked if Christ might step through the door and meet a few of her colleagues, thus settling the debate once and for all. Perhaps I am prejudiced against the cloth. Seems fair, after she spent an entire evening bending my ear about her progress through religion and then two days later, when I spoke to her in the swimming pool, she pretended to be Greta Garbo.
     
'I want to be alone,' she gasped theatrically. 'This is my holiday and people won't leave me alone.'
     
'But I only asked, when do you go back to work?' I stuttered.

At the our-last-night-of-the-holiday-dinner, couples sat together for security. And feeling myself in distinct danger of being propositioned by our hostess, I plonked myself down next to Alan. He, in honour of the occasion had substituted his Lycra for an old pair of trousers and a fisherman's jersey. John the Jazz sat in regal splendour on his far side. Quicker on the uptake than me, he had already sussed out that in Alan (whom he insisted on calling Reg, after Reg Harris, World Champion sprint cyclist in the fifties) he had discovered something unique. I agreed after spending several hours in his company, on a walk up a steep mountain to view a monastery. He had joined us (me and the young geek, who I hasten to say turned out to be the most delightful young man. Perhaps it was his shorts that were at fault.) at dinner one evening, where I learned that he rationed himself to ten Euros a day. He ate breakfast and something, relatively cheap, like spaghetti bolognese, for dinner. And it was at dinner that evening that I discovered, to my great relief, that his deformity was actually an overly large money-belt, purchased in the market at little expense.
     
On the far side of the table sat our resident paranoid schizophrenic, whose stomach had by this time reached the two yard line, over which buttons and button holes would not leap. He had proved himself relatively normal in the light of day, but deteriorated rapidly as the sun sank towards the horizon, and was now regaling those seated around him, about the Zionist / MI6 plot to eliminate him and stop him blowing the whistle on the government. These were the people who had bugged his television set. Having already sat through it several times, I knew his listeners were in for a roller-coaster ride.
     
Alan was undoubtedly by far the safer option.

Born in Kent and a union man, he admitted to being a firebrand in his youth. In sober middle age, this had turned to calm disgust at the corruption of modern government – particularly the one he had championed for so long. Married, divorced, his family had pretty-much disowned him. I expect it was the Lycra. Bestowed on him as a job lot some ten years earlier, when he was living in unbelievably reduced circumstances yet still possessing a determination to travel, he had taken to wearing Lycra instead of holiday clothes. Washed at night – hung up to dry – no ironing needed. Perfect for a man living on £45 a week.
     
This had come about because the Job Centre in their wisdom had decided  a man couldn't possibly live on £45 a week, his wage from his part-time job. Instead, they offered him six weeks full-time employment, unfortunately without being able to say if there was or wasn’t a job at the end of it. Now Alan liked his job. He was a cleaner at a local college and he was happy. It had taken him a couple of years to even find this one, and without guarantees there would be something after the six weeks, when he would become fully unemployed, quite logically, he refused – rightly preferring the bird in hand.
Concluding he had to have money stashed away to be so obdurate as to refuse six weeks' work, the Job Centre cut his entitlement to benefit. Alan didn't argue but set about living on what he earned.
     
It was John the Jazz who told me that Alan never burned heat, only in the severest of winters. Instead, he rolled himself in a blanket, stuffing a hot water bottle between him and the blanket. He never used the immersion either, boiling a kettle for hot water. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal porridge (buying large sacks cheaply) sweetened with a little wild honey. And for dinner pilchards in tomato sauce were stirred into potato. (You know those huge tins that cost 50p and are frequently fed to non-fussy cats). Once a week he visited (and still does) the supermarket, filling his trolley with whatever was out-of date, bent or damaged, all the goods he could lay his hands on for a tenner.
And for entertainment he listened to Radio 4.
     
Finally, after ten years he was granted a pension of just over £100 a week. For him this was a fortune. He made himself live off £60 because somewhere amongst all this high finance he was still paying back £85 pounds a month to a Holiday Club. In the wildness of youth, he had fallen victim to a scam, and had signed an agreement to pay £5,000 for which he would get free holidays in Spain every year. He never got the holidays but he still had to pay the five grand. The rest he saves or spends on going places. Constantly checking for last minute deals – no matter where – he packs his Lycra and off he goes.
     
I wish George Bernard Shaw had been one of our party in Crete that year. I would back Alan against Alfred P. Doolittle any day, and after talking with him, no doubt the great man would have agreed.
     
We parted next day. Most were returning home after a week's holiday. Alan and John the Jazz were staying longer. Swearing to keep in touch by email there were murmurs of a repeat visit next year. But it wouldn't work.
It was the thrill of discovery which jelled such a disparate group, and that in any future encounter would be lacking.

Still I confess to a hankering to find out what is in store for Alan. He was the type to 'have gone over the top' in the First World War, despite his abhorrence for war. I just know he will be junketing around Europe until he is too old to move. And then quietly, without any fuss, he will die.
     
So please, if a man in Lycra, with piercing blue eyes and greying stubble decorating an overly large chin, turns up in your holiday destination, say 'hello' to him for me.  

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