My Animals and Other Families

Unlike the previous year’s week in Italy, our arrival in Mallorca passed relatively incident-free. Ok, we were stuck in the carpark for 10 minutes while I tried to locate the handbrake in the hire car (to much sniggering in the back), but once I realised it didn’t have a handbrake we made easy work of the 45 minute drive to the villa.

Within half an hour of our arrival the kids hit the water and I explored the environs. The place looked just fine: plenty of space, good size rooms, a nice big kitchen, and if the pool wasn’t exactly of Olympic proportions, it was big enough for me to join the kids for a wallow, without too much water displacement. It was a semi-secluded spot, with just one other villa over an unkept hedge which, on first examination, seemed to be unoccupied. Perfect- we could make as much noise as we liked, and there were no neighbours to complain about the noise as I beat the children.

The area around the pool and the barbeque had recently been swept clean and, at first glance, looked to be spick and span. However, as I wandered around I did notice a pile dust in the corner where the cleaners had neglected to dispose of it. Not to worry, I thought to myself as I reached for the dustpan and brush. Then, as I made my move to sweep up the pile, it moved. Or rather the top of the pile moved. It wasn’t dust, it was ants. Or rather it was a pile of dead ants, with a surface covering of live ones. There must have been thousands of them.

Hmmm…. I’m not squeamish about ants, but I didn’t want a colony of them, dead or alive, sharing my holiday home. With several flicks of the wrist several generations of hundreds of ant families and their ancestors were in their temporary Addis home in transit to their new home over the hedge. We spent the rest of the evening by the pool, supping the local brew, nibbling oddly and amusingly name potato-based snacks. Oliver, our 16 year old budding Gerald Durrell, searched the grounds for lizards and snakes. Thankfully he returned empty handed.

Waking early next morning, The Incumbent and I prepared ourselves for a quiet cup of tea and a peaceful breakfast by the pool while the youngsters slept off the effects of a chlorine overdose. The sun was shining, the cockerels in the surrounding farms cock-a-doodle-did each other, and two long lines of ants were marching up and down the wall near barbie. Oh sod it. I looked more closely and the floor of the verandah was teeming with the little buggers.

These critters did not enjoy a long life, it seemed to me, as half of their number were already evidently dead. Perhaps they were a particular type of ‘one-day’ ants, I wondered to myself. It made no never mind, as no sooner did one snuff it on my patio, then he was replaced by a dozen others or more. Again I burst into action with my trusty dustpan and brush, but clearly I was going to need something more to combat the attacking forces. In any event, the neighbour’s garden was beginning to resemble an ant cemetery.

Once the kids had finally woken and had breakfast we attempted to press-gang them into the car for the short trip to the beach. Oliver had found a grasshopper and was studying it intently, ignoring our pleas to get in the car. The other three were moping about at the speed only teenagers and Jamaican beach coconut sellers have mastered. Why is it so hard to move kids anywhere? All they want to do is to lay down or sit on their arses wherever they are at that particular moment. You can promise them a beautiful beach, blazing hot sun, ice cream, watersports, even free money and they still want to stay in bed til way after the sun is over the yardarm. You also know that once you arrive they won’t want to leave, taking a good hour and a half to get packed and ready for the journey home. Anyway.

On arrival we set up camp under two sunshades and the four teenagers, showing a rare display of enthusiasm, scurried off to the water. Ah! peace again, we thought. I’d hardly had time to remove my socks and sandals before Tom (the eldest of the four kids) returned from whence he swame. He’d been stung by something which had left a watch-sized welt around his wrist, much to the amusement of Ollie the part-time botanist and full-time elder-brother-annoyer. While his mother was tending to Tom’s wounds, I walked down to the shore to check on the others. I made for a magnificent sight: the sun gleaming off my baldpatch, the sweat trickling down my pale hairy skin, creating a torrent between my moobs, my swimming shorts at half-mast out of respect to the ants who’d died that morning so that we might enjoy breakfast.

Like Daniel Craig‘s grandfather I waded thigh deep into the sea, egged on by the kids, two of whom were hiding their embarrassment rather well as they watched in horror as their father’s naked upper body wobbled towards them. I stood there for a second, letting the warm, invitingly blue Mediterranean waters lap gently up against my nadgers. 29 ½ inches below the surface, something was afoot.

No sooner had I plunged my shoulders beneath the waves when “Oh you little bast..OW!!” I cried (with all the dignity I could muster). I’d been stung too. Something had taken a shine to my instep and sunk it’s teeth/claws/tentacles into my foot. It wasn’t much more painful than a nettle sting, but it was a sting nevertheless. I retreated to the sandy shore, dragging my mutilated foot behind me, like a puppet on a string. The girls followed hastily, not wanting to join the victim list. Oliver went off diving to look for sea monsters.

As Tom and I compared wounds, a middle-aged, pink and plumpish woman laying on the lounger beside us sat up.

“Excause me, boot have yau been stoong”. Her accent told me she was from the midlands. That and the Aston Villa tattoo on her forearm.
“Er.. yes.. I think so” I replied.
“Jelleefeesh” she declared.”There were oondreds of jelleefeesh around ere yestardie, I got stoong on me leg, loook!” She showed us a long lesion running up the length on her inner thigh, stopping just below her gusset. It was a disturbing sight, for all manner of reasons. “I got some cream for it off the loifguard over therrr. Ee’s very noice.”
We turned to look at the lifeguard station, a sort of tennis umpire’s chair with a roof on. Flying above it was a red cross flag and a yellow one which we later discovered meant “swim with caution”. The loifguard, sorry lifeguard himself was at that moment hoisting a third which had a rather crude drawing of a jellyfish on it. After saying some rather crude words of my own, myself and The Incumbent went off in search of some jellyfish sting ointment. By the time we’d returned twenty minutes later, all four of the children were back on the beach, looking bored, cold, hungry or tired, or a combination of all four. We left.

By the time we got back to the villa, Ollie’s grasshopper was but a furry black ball on the patio.. The ants had got hold of it and were feasting their tiny choppers into the poor little sod. There were noises from over the hedge. A family had moved in and were mucking around in their pool. This caused much fascination and some rather obvious spying and snooping. “Chinese” said the girls. “Scottish” declared the boys. I couldn’t be arsed to adjudicate, they were simply referred to thereafter as the McWongs.

I ordered one and all to shower before anyone made a move for the pool. As I poured myself and The Incumbent a sharpener the girls rushed into the kitchen complaining that a column of ants had invaded their dressing table and were all over everything. I put down my beer and picked up the car keys. As I left the house to go find a supermarket to buy some ant repellent, I passed Oliver in the garden, playing with his latest find ; a large blue-black bug which was crawling up his arm. If I’d had the time I might have discovered it was a cockroach, but thankfully I didn’t have time and as far as I’m concerned it was nothing more than a stag beetle. Or something.

Fatty Owls

The Null Stern- bring your own pyjamas

News reaches me of the world’s first zero star hotel. The Null Stern Hotel (slogan: ‘The Only Star is You’) in Switzerland is a converted nuclear bunker where, for for six quid (about 1 Euro at present) you get a military-style bunkbed for the night, hot water bottles rather than central heating, and earplugs to blockout the din of the ventilation system. Who gets a hot shower in the morning and who’s shower is cold is determined by drawing lots.

All very shocking, I’m sure, but does it really deserve no stars? And if it does, I’d like to nominate a few more which deserve that honour. One that immediately springs to mind is the lovely en-suite double I once stayed at in Morecambe. En-suite, it technically was, but the bathroom was of Fawlty Towers proportions. I literally had to open the door to lean forward to wipe my bum. Lovely. Especially for my partner.

Then there was the establishment in Blackpool where a turd was discovered in the cleaner’s bucket (though that may have been left there by one of the guests), not forgetting the B&B above The Swan in Bath with 1 room, five beds and a sink, which one night trebled-up as a wash basin, urinal and bidet.

Closer to home there’s Blackheath’s very own Clarendon Hotel, which stands above the village as a beacon of overpriced misery, a monument to peeling paint, a seven-star shabby shit-pit, spewing out streams of swindled Spaniards, irate Italians and dejected Gerries onto the surrounding streets and environs as they spend a gruesome night there as part of their coach trip round Britain. They’re easy to spot wandering around the bars and eateries of the village, all with that same bemused look on their faces as they struggle to come to terms with where their tour company has billeted them for the night.

At one newspaper I worked at, district men and foreign correspondents were put up in the Clarendon for the night if they were called to the London office. They threatened to strike until the company eventually found a proper hotel.

I stayed there once, during my divorce malarky. I stayed in a single room of such drabness, smallness and all-round lessness that, even in my misery of a break-up, I pitied the poor French or Japanese sods who have to put up with ‘traditional quaint British hospitality’, and fork-out a fortune for the privilege. I can’t remember exactly what they charged my for that room, but it in the neighbourhood of a hundred quid. What must the visitors think of us?

On the other hand, sometimes the guests are actually worse than the hotel: On a rugby club tour one year, and after a particularly long and boysterous first night in our hotel, an ashen-faced hotelier staggered into the breakfast room the following morning to address us.

“I’ve been in the hotel trade for 35 years and that was the the worst behaviour I’ve ever seen” he whimpered.

“Stick around!” came a voice from the back.

It makes an abandoned nuclear bunker in Switzerland seem quite appealing.