Low life

In the soft Cornish air, with the pressure off, I caved in

It was like crawling out of my sleeping bag on a different, quieter continent

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

Just when I was beginning to think I’d had enough, I was offered a free week in a caravan. I took it like a shot, threw a few shirts in the boot of the car, and buggered off down to Cornwall. I arrived in darkness and couldn’t find the electricity switch. But I was so tired I simply climbed into a sleeping bag by the light of my phone and fell asleep.

I was woken by sunshine and the cawing of rooks. At this caravan, there is no internet, no phone signal for miles, no telly, no radio. And the air I swear is soporific. It was like crawling out of my sleeping bag on a different, quieter continent. But being out of my usual element, and released, suddenly, from the continual demands of other people, and their noise, and their terrifying, overpowering wills, and then breathing the different, softer Cornish air, had a peculiar effect on me. With the pressure suddenly off, I sort of caved in, and found I’d lost both manual dexterity and the ability to think logically or consecutively. I couldn’t do up the sleeping-bag zip, not even after puzzling and teasing at it for half an hour. I couldn’t do up my shirt buttons. I put them in the wrong holes. I fluffed tying the laces of my shoes. I couldn’t slop apple juice into a mug without spillage. Folding back the many curtains and fastening them in the fiddly curtain ties seemed an almost insuperable operation.


Even in broad daylight I couldn’t locate the caravan’s electricity master switch. I all but dismantled the propane gas boiler in an effort to make it go and have hot water running through the shower head — and I still failed. I couldn’t get the little bluetooth music speaker I’d bought for exactly this kind of situation to work at any price. I couldn’t open a packet of biscuits with either my fingers or my teeth. I tried with a blunt knife and failed. I couldn’t find a sharp knife. The cawing of the rooks began to sound threatening and unpleasant. I caught sight of myself — a staring maniac — in the mirror above the decorative mantelpiece. I slumped down on to a bench and noticed that my joints ached and I had the beginnings of a headache. I wanted to smash something, anything, and not excluding myself.

I retied and fastened my shoelaces, agonised for perhaps five minutes about whether or not to take my coat, looked everywhere in a furious rage for the caravan’s door key and found it in my pocket, then I quit the caravan, slamming the door behind me with all of my little strength. At the gate I could choose to turn right on to a track of stark white dust, or I could turn left. The choice seemed to be somehow crucially important and I was paralysed by that. Fearing the worst, I turned left. Twenty yards along I changed my mind and walked back the other way. I came to the entrance to the beach and some surfwear shops and their fluttering flags. I turned left, went up the hill and turned right on to the coastal footpath. The path led across a rabbit-cropped lawn and suddenly I was out and away with a glittering ocean on my right, a cloudless blue heaven above, and pink sea campion bobbing and nodding agreement all around me.  An elderly couple, brimming with vitality and goodwill, greeted me with utmost cordiality as they sped past in the opposite direction. I returned their greeting like a game-show host yelling end-of-show inanities above the roar of an applauding audience. Now, I realised, I was as crazily elated above reasonableness as I had been earlier depressed below it.

After a mile I arrived at the mouth of the Camel river and behind it the sandy expanse of Daymer bay, which looks exactly like the river Niger as it runs through the Sahel near Mopti in Mali. I was flying. I took off my shoes and socks and stalked barefoot right across the bay, sometimes on the scalding sand, sometimes at the water’s edge, sometimes paddling through it. A school of porpoises, half a dozen of them, bloody great things, like whales seen from a distance, were sporting or browsing in the estuary not 50 yards away, and I kept my neck craned and my eye on them constantly as I walked. The sunlight glancing off sea and sand was dazzling. Sweat stung my eyes. The air shimmered above the sandy wastes and what seemed close at hand turned out to be far away and vice versa. But I kept my eye on my friends the porpoises, envying their shiny blackness, and their effortless wheeling, which reminded me of something I’d recently lost, but also lent confidence that I might recover it soon enough.

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