You got a bit of cabin fever, I expect.’ ‘Yes, I suppose you could say that. I had the 4 – 8 watch and I found it hard going.’ ‘Did you see dolphins though?’ ‘Oh yes, there were lots and lots of dolphins.’ ‘And phosphorescence? Did you see that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you see dolphins in the phosphorescence?’ ‘I did.’ ‘It’s amazing isn’t it?’ ‘It’s fantastic, they look like torpedoes and … wait a minute. How do you know all this?’ My sister, St Francis, was chatting with an acquaintance this morning. Having very recently returned from a sailing trip to Bermuda he has an evangelistic need to share his experience that all first-timers get. His wife, who didn’t go on the trip and who hasn’t been sailing in tropical waters is already full to the brim with his stories. In St Francis he sensed a kindred spirit. ‘We sailed boats down to West Africa when I was a kid,’ she answered his question. ‘Did you?’ ‘Yes. And I was in the Merchant Navy.’ ‘Were you?’ He’s only known St Francis for ten years. No reason he should have picked up such details in that short time.
There is a picture of St Francis, windswept and tiny, on the deck of our motor boat. In front of her our mother is frozen in the act of slicing the first piece from a birthday cake. St Francis is three and she’s celebrating mid Biscay. She’s already experienced Breton women in traditional dress clucking over her. Later, in La Rochelle, she’ll see her first dead body which will drift across the harbour between us and the toy sailing boat that she got as her present. My father will cast the little yacht adrift when next we put to sea because none of us want to play with it any more.
And so on, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Western Sahara etc., etc., until, one day, she and I will be standing in the market in Banjul, The Gambia, gazing up at a very well-built pink-eyed albino woman as she sold our mother some fly attracting mutton.
Three years later, we were living in Nigeria and two years after that we sailed another boat down to West Africa. This time via Sweden.
St Francis has had cabin fever. She’s seen flying fish, whales, dolphins, and dolphins gliding through the eerie glow of phosphorescent waters on dark nights when the coast is an unlit shadow on the horizon. She knew exactly where her friend was coming from this morning just as she understood the wide-eyed, inarticulate little girl from across the road when she returned from a trip to Kenya, a few years ago. St Francis hasn’t been to Kenya but she knows the heat, the noise, the smells of Africa. And she knows that, unless you’re talking to someone who has been there, you cannot communicate the experience. No matter how many stories you tell and no matter how many pictures you take.
Which brings me to an awkward thought – I fancy myself as a writer and if I accept the truth of what I have just written in the last paragraph …