“You’d think they’d be able to speak English” he rants, ignoring the Spanish barman close by. “Don’t they know they’re in the European Union?”
The people at the next table fake weak grins and look away.
“If it wasn’t for us they’d still be picking bloody bananas,” he says, encouraged by even this slightest acknowledgement.
A fixture in the Paradise Bar throughout the two months of my stay, he sits stripped to the waist, worshipping the sun, his back set firmly against a spectacular view of the mighty Atlantic.
His skin, hanging several sizes too large for his frame, is stained deep mahogany, except for the vivid white stripes crossing his stomach, where the sun hasn’t penetrated the creases. When he straightens to go to the bar, he resembles some shabby, shambling tiger.
For two months he’s been a major irritant, rambling on until people learn to sit elsewhere. Regular visitors to the island know him from old. He greets them enthusiastically, insisting on buying their first drinks. It’s a clever ploy to garner more of their time, since most people won’t take a drink from an old boy without returning the favour. Once they’ve caught up on the local news, they’ll steer clear. He doesn’t improve with exposure.
Occasionally, some first-time visitor feeling the need for conversation with another Englishman, even this Englishman, will step into his web. They’ll come here each day, listen to his life story and then return home, happy to have him pinned, like a butterfly, into their holiday reminiscences.
‘D’you remember that bloke we met, the one who sold up to move out there. What a character…’
People like this are his life-blood. They provide the affirmation that he got it right; that selling up and turning an annual holiday experience into a 365 day life style was inspired genius.
The woman he brought out here with him has long since tired of him and returned to England. Nevertheless, there is always a succession of spirited, middle aged ladies back in England willing to renew their acquaintanceship whenever they want a summer break. It’s just that though … a break, and they’d die if they knew that when sufficiently inebriated, he’ll regale anyone who’ll listen with tales of their shared sexual exploits, the currency with which they pay for their holidays in the sun.
He’s learned to leave me alone, finally accepting that I come here to sit in the shade, watch the sea, and drink bottled water. Over the weeks, my intense irritation has given way to a reluctant compulsion to observe, and I realise that I too am guilty of pinning him to my cork board for further clinical study.
Today something is different. Today he looks cleaner, smarter. He wears new shorts and a crisp short-sleeved shirt, now wilting on the back of his chair.
Clearly this is not a good day for him; he arrived already half-cut, and has an air of belligerence.
“Bring a bloody translator,” he says, catching at the arm of a regular trying to sidle out unobserved. “That’s what he said. Keeps me waiting an hour and then wants me to come back tomorrow with a translator.”
He gulps his beer.
“Where the hell will I find a translator?”
His acquaintance feigns interest. “Been to the docs again, Joe? More tests?”
“Nah, had them two weeks ago, should have had the results today.”
His friend looks uneasy, and catches my eye, biting his lip. There’s an uncomfortable pause.
I can scarcely believe it when I hear myself offer to act as a translator for him, and my incredulity is only matched by my dismay, as he accepts with pathetic gratitude, and joins me at my table. At least, I console myself, I’m going home soon. I may have lowered the barrier, but it won’t be forever.
I refuse a drink, saying I’ll pick him up here tomorrow. I’m already regretting my impulse and don’t want to prolong my exposure to him. My concern does not change what he is, only my reaction to him.
Next day, the news is not good.
The doctor suggests Joe puts his affairs in order and returns to England. The treatment for his condition is only palliative, but it’s expensive and his patient has no medical insurance. Rather than being frustrated by the language barrier, the doctor seizes on it as a welcome defence mechanism, ignoring Joe and focusing his gaze on me.
When he’s finished, he sits back and resting his elbows on his chair, puts the tips of his fingers to his chin to observe the disclosure.
I haltingly explain the situation to Joe. When I utter the word ‘terminal’ he looks as though I have struck him.
The doctor writes him a prescription for pain-killers, and seals the notes and test results into an envelope which he gives to me, as if the language barrier also precludes any form of physical contact with his patient.
I take Joe’s arm and we leave the clinic. Standing outside in the warm sunshine, I have no idea what to say to him. The sky is the same brilliant blue that it was fifteen minutes ago, and yet now it seems to have taken on a threatening, unfriendly hue. Joe is swaying unsteadily on his feet, looking around the busy street as if seeing everything for the first, or maybe the last time.
“Where shall I take you?” I say eventually. “Do you want to go back to your apartment?”
He shakes his head, slowly like a wounded animal, removing his baseball cap to scratch his scalp. And then I see the shutters come down on the events of the last fifteen minutes.
“Tell you what,” he says, brightening, as if he’s suddenly been struck by a brilliant idea, “let’s go down to the Paradise Bar. You must let me buy you a drink.”
Sighing, I accept, a long afternoon in prospect.