The Observer

So I asked Harold. Harold is like me in some respects, hates fishing, doesn't enjoy beer, detests card games, can't stand too much female dominated conversation - or male dominated conversation, come to that, when it embraces football or cricket and bugger-all else; and unlike me in other respects for he not art appreciative, is not a bird person, tends to sea-sickness and is a good person to keep away from in a choppy sea particularly as this is a bad time to go chugging around in small boats with a sharp north-westerly and rain in the air. Guessing the likely answer I caught a startled look from Claudia and did not repeat the question. Dear old Harold is best kept away from water, loves his fish dishes - provided it's wild salmon, or smoked haddock roulade, or spinach and crab pancakes - but not fish caught from the harbour wall, thank you very much. And Renton's not into fishing either for he's a bit too elderly and needs the loo frequently, and we don't pee over the side any more and risk being shouted at with a loud hailer from the sea wall, so it's gotta be me. And I'm funny about water, a sailing man who loves being on it but fears being in it, a fear augmented by our family doctor Dr Riddick who was a naval doctor before he entered general practice and warned this small boy that swimming is one of the causes of early deafness.

The crux of the matter is that Dick is getting close to eighty and should not go fishing alone. Jesse worries about him and with good reason. We heard about the keys: Jesse leaves her spare key with Maud next door which is a worry because Maud is a forgetful old biddy and leaves her spare key with the Pillbeams opposite. And Dick doesn't like the Pillbeams so he sits outside and waits for Jesse to come home.

"The silly old fool will fall overboard again and he's on his own and next time he'll drown. I can't send him to post a letter, you know, he'll forget what he went for. And he's lost two gaz bottles already, forgets and leaves them outside shops. We have them delivered now because the poor old lad doesn't get out much 'cos he reckons the mob are after him. Well, they're not, but he thinks they are. My dad would've sorted the buggers with his swagger stick. Anyway Dick saw something he wasn't supposed to see and it upset him. And he caused a lot of confusion in the dock when he cast off two other boats to get his, so he's upset some of the local lads as well."

Maeve has tried talking to him. So have I. We remind him he's been rescued once already. "If your boat turns over you'll lose the battle for survival, Dick flower. Bad situation to be in. Definitely not on." He takes this with a hesitant look, as if being pushed to face something he doesn't want to see. This is not like Dick, who enjoys a bit of fishing. His fixed anxiety is masked by an inscrutable grin, for he's finding it hard to accept that age has caught up with him. "So, I'm going with you, 'cos Lizzie fancies a bit of bass, otherwise you shouldn't go. Jesse's really worried and you've just had what she calls a dicky fit. So treat this seriously, Dick flower. You go fishing with a mate, not on your tod. We'll do just four hours, no longer. Agreed?"

"Okay, pal. Might be good for bass today."

Jesse nods agreement. She will do sandwiches for us. We don't need sandwiches for a four hour trip, but she is the caring sort - so we get survival packs in case we are ambushed. Jesse is tall and really quite striking for her seventy-odd years. Proudly she is the daughter of Sergeant-Major John Gilpin who enters and leaves our discourse at odd moments: "He was a big fella, my dad. Chased Rommel out of Africa, then fought his way up Italy." Mention of the illustrious sergeant-major starts Dick rattling on about his own time with the Eighth Army: "Sand sores and me feet. We got Shermans in forty-three, hundreds of the buggers."

Doom-laden. Dick's dicky fit - as Jesse calls it. "If I go first Dick's going to shoot himself. And if we went home on the 'St Helena' we'd have nowhere to go. Couldn't stay with Ronnie with his missus and two kids, we'd just get in the way. We sold the restaurant to an Indian chap. Dick kept the garden lovely with his feet and all."

Yes, the feet. He ran over a mine in his tank and broke both legs and feet. Now he has arthritis and he hobbles. They've been married for over forty years. There's a weariness of age that brings nostalgia to the fore, they laugh at jokes that once were meaningful, they chide each other with relish, all those bits and pieces accumulated as they marched through life get thrown into general conversation. Grandpa Gilpin, long gone, sits with them most mealtimes. Frankly, I'm not surprised that Dick gets fed up with the old soldier.

"No capital left from the restaurant sale?"

"Went ages ago. We bought El Paso, furniture, got Ronnie started, put a deposit on their new house. All gone. We sell this place, won't be enough to buy us a bungalow back home."

Fanciful imaginings or has Dick really come up against the mob? Hard to see how he, with his arthritis and his walking stick, could ever be a threat to the local criminal fraternity. Outspoken he may be, as are many others who get nobbled by street time-share touts, for the mobs are into time share, I've seen them occasionally at the bank with some of them guarding the door. Maybe they want protection money from him - protection money from pensioners, what a great idea!

No seriously, they should go home. There's the Bull Ring, never seen it myself but its name is bandied about, emerging in conversation like a half concealed diamond at the centre of Birmingham. They are reaching out for it, the family is there, electricity is regular and gas comes out of pipes not bottles.

Dick's boat is an inflatable, it doesn't have the stiffness of a proper planked boat. I know I'm not going to enjoy this. Dick and his Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman jokes, his notions of space creatures who live on the moon, notions that are ridiculous to me and long since negated by science, but held aloft by this ex-hussar perchance due to long nights in the desert. What ties me to him, the accident of proximity maybe? There's a link somewhere and I've never really looked at it: Dick is ex-army, Jesse is ex-Auxiliary Territorial Service, both under the command of the late sergeant-major; Peter is ex-army - and Maeve is Senior Service, the widow of chief petty officer Maurice Catchpole - she never speaks of him but I think he's a Maurice - and Liliane's husband Kube ex-Luftwaffe, and Renton ex-RAF. Accident of birth put these people in the firing line and now they live alongside each other without prior arrangement, without rancour, and with me, who in 1945 missed military service by a whisker, hanging around as an observer, an observer who just hasn't bothered to observe. I really should pay more attention. Are these people damaged or enriched by outliving the horrors of war? Tenerife must host platoons of ex-service people who came for peace and quiet.

"Petal, who told us he was Maurice?"


"Not Maeve?"

"No, Lori."

I get the feeling that our intrepid observer should keep his nose out of this. All these years and Maeve hasn't spoken.

In 1940/41 in England, when the threat of invasion was real, I was in the Cyclists' Touring Club exploring the country, staying at youth hostels. I met a lot of Home Guard, mostly older men who were only part-time soldiers, for one corporal I knew as a local greengrocer talked about killing a few huckin' funs - for in those days adults didn't use foul words in front of kids - and going back to his garden. And I thought with a juvenile sense of adventure how easy it would be to creep up to that stack of rifles leaning against the tree trunk with a squad of Home Guard, their backs turned, in shirt sleeves and braces happily picking tomatoes when a bayonet point scraped my cheek and settled beneath my ear. "Bugger off, kid," said the ivy bush.

"Goes on like a fuckin' fishwife, she does."

"Fishwife my arse! She worries about you, Dick. She doesn't want to end up a widow before your golden wedding."

"The mob's after me. I'll get shot before I drown!"

Funny how insignificant things stay in the back of the mind: my innocent childhood imperiled by fishwives who were loud and foul-mouthed, and women in fur coats who ran away with little boys and the Home Guard with fixed bayonets.

I don't really want to bother with this odd linkage for there is nothing to be gained physically or psychologically, but it is curious. No way can Jesse be a fishwife, she is far too ladylike. It is just Dick's way of getting even with fussy females. It can't be birding, there was only Peter, Renton and I. Harold has an intellectual link with Peter into world history; but Dick reckons a bloke who goes looking at birds and does history is a bit of a wuss. "You take big paces you leave big spaces," was Harold's introduction to the four corners of scientific method. "Slow down. Take it piece by piece. Don't worry, the Guanches wont go away." Claudia, like Shirley and Lizzie, is into poetry - and Bernardo with poor old Lorca and other Spanish poets is in a world of his own and I find his almost isolationist mode rather worrying. Where does Dick fit into this group? Okay, he's a corner boy compared with Jesse. They ran a restaurant for a number of years, Jesse is a talented cook - yet there is no broad sign of her talents except when we get invited to dinner, and she rarely talks about food. Why do members of a social group continue to hang together? Certainly, an observer upsets the equilibrium of the group and rarely if ever finds an objective result, so why bother?

Lizzie with wry smile of mischief chips in, "An observer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer!"

"There speaks a true scientist!"

Dick will not park his boat by the shallow sandy end, for children wade out and get on board, so it is by the inner mole where he has to scramble over a rocky pathway to reach it, whingeing about life among the Spanish. "Never leave your outboard on the boat. These people are thievin' rag bags." He hooks up the motor and starts it with the clutch in and nearly throws us over the stern. He really has no idea.

We round the harbour mouth where I always look for swimmers, pass ferociously jumbled blocks of concrete with sharp saw-like edges where two surfaces meet, put there to break up incoming waves; the hollows between the blocks carry the usual flotsam of beer cans, beach sandals, plastic bags, balls. "Four years in the bloody desert, I mean even the bloody arabs keep camp a bloody sight better, I mean look at it, they've got no bloody idea..." He goes on about the bloody Spanish while keeping a safe distance from the sharp edges with his boat hook. "They haven't even got a bloody lifeboat here. Heard the Lions are bringing an old one from Dover. I mean even an old one is better than fuck all! I mean we got the ferry coming in twice a day and no effin' lifeboat and all these kids climbing about the harbour walls and all we got is that inshore rescue boat. I mean stands to reason dunnit! ...I mean, dunnit!"

The sea is calm, the north-westerly has hardly ruffled the surface yet I reckon we'll have less than four hours before the sea is well up.

Now a dense silence descends, catches my attention ... "Oh my God! Alan, look at this." I look, hardly recognizing at first, unwilling to believe what I am seeing, the head of an infant, a tiny foot, sodden white baby clothes ...Hell, what am I looking at! Washed clean of blood and just above high water mark, it took a couple of seconds to click, this infant didn't come in with the tide - it was thrown from above.

A brief duet of "Oh my Gods!" and above us people on the wall are staring curiously, but they can't see what we can see. They are Swedish holidaymakers and I want the police. Thank God their English is adequate. Now we must wait. We don't touch. We don't even want to look. But we look and we look at the sweet innocence of babyhood shocked into cruel death. Dick is in tears. So am I, dammit. Where is the mother? What state of mind is she in? What dire cause brought on the killing of a baby? Now we have a small crowd. We ignore questions hurled at us. And the tide is going out., and we can see more of the pathetic remains.

Distress is turning to anger, we have been here half an hour already. Now - and about time too - the coastguard rescue boat comes booming round the corner with men in yellow storm wear, POLICIA writ large on their backs. They clamber about looking for clues in the deep crevasses between the concrete blocks. From us they want statements and photographs. It's all very time-consuming and difficult on a rolling boat with the sea coming up.

"Alan, you're a social worker, why don't they move the poor kid?"

"Don't be a prat, Dick. This is the scene of the crime. We're lucky not to be arrested!"

The white dress is washed pink and red, the limbs appear rigid like a doll's - does rigor mortis affect babies? We are ordered to present our residencias - which, of course, we haven't got on us - to the police station in Las Americas by this evening. For now, we are ordered back to our berth and told to wait, and do not speak to the press or we shall be arrested. We are accompanied by a young policeman detailed to stand guard over us. He is Policia Local and doesn't really know what's happening. We give him our sandwiches.

With the police around, Dick is jittery. I assume he and Jesse have their Residencias, their Identificacion Fiscal and all the other bits and pieces that keep them sweet and clean in Spain, unless he's done something silly like brought a keepsake from the Africa Corps into Spain because, since the monstrous slaughter of the civil war, gun law in Spain has become very tight and, if caught in possession of a pretty Walther P38 pistol without a permit he could be imprisoned, like that other ex-army bloke up by Arona blasting away in his back garden...

"You okay, Dick?"

"Fuckin' police!"

We try not to talk. People are gathering, some are annoyed because we have been told not to say anything. Benchigua arrives with a hoot, mouth opening like a white whale about to swallow a shoal of sardines, people, cars and lorries disembark. The crowd gets bigger. Now Lizzie appears on her bike, alarmed, for it's five and a half hours ago and we said four. Our young policeman rises politely to his feet and salutes. And it's raining.

"Well I was worried," Lizzie puffs, "Don't tell me you've been caught shoplifting!"

Another local police officer arrives, wants to know what time we arrived here, and is there any persons to be giving birth we are knowing of. And will we report any suspicious behaviour? He tells us we can go now to report before tomorrow to la comisaria de policia later.

Lizzie is now wildly alarmed, "You're in trouble! What's my Lone Ranger been up to?"

We put Dick's outboard across the bike and start walking back to Cristimar, then I can take him home.

"Tell me, c'mon."

I'm brusque with Lizzie, I hope she understands that I don't want to hear any more exclamations of horror. If you've actually seen a trashed infant that's been thrown over the edge onto hard concrete blocks, any further discourse is trite. "Yes, it was a girl." Why is it that girls get the chop? Actually I know the answer to that, so why query it!

I'm getting snappy, "Can we leave it now, Lizzie!"

Well, it's different. We've had that grotesque bloated corpse of a drowned migrant by the old salt pans - even I could smell it; and the drug thing, like that fishing boat from Venezuela that got lost and ran out of fuel and the crew were eating the bloody stuff to stay alive; and we got the migrant thing when Lori and Claudio got involved with a drifting boatload of migrants; but a baby thrown away is enough to fill anybody's day. Mind you, we had that cot death just before I retired, one of the medics said "I bet it's a girl." It was.

Over coffee we report: Berenca is with us displaying her new table furniture in German china. "This bad thing is come back to Canaria. When the life is hard the campas kill the childs. And much die with Franco here and kidnap to take away."

"Just flotsam," says Maeve, the stony face hides a deep trough of despair. "If you'd left well alone, the tide would have taken the poor little thing out."

The child was not in rags, looked well cared for. White silky stuff or was it pink? About three to six months at a guess. And now, amongst these present, tales are coming out, mostly concerning the itinerant crowd of kids on extended holidays who somehow disappear into the background foss of street markets, bar touts, time-share people, all living on a subcultural level which means overcrowded apartments, hiding occasionally when the police are doing a bust. Abortion costs money, so some girls go full term then deposit the fruits of their labour in the nearest basura. It's not spoken about much, it's the dark stain beneath the sun tan.

We hear the police are pursuing their enquiries. It was weeks back now. Apart from yellow paint marking the area where the infant was found. and a brief police comment in the local papers that says "If you have any information please contact us," no more has been seen or heard. But, if there is any more stuff to be found Maeve will find it - or else more stuff will find her. "Time share kids. They've got this apartment round the corner on a long let. There must be a dozen of them crammed in there, and they hide when their parents come looking for them; kids stick together and don't say anything, then they get pregnant and you get babies dumped in basuras. Little sods!"

Like an occupying army the unregulated freedom of these street kids is quite alarming, sometimes they gang up on holiday people and insult them and their supervisors can be quite violent for they have unrelenting targets and goals.

Absence of targets and goals is frustrating for the social observer. I often wonder what happened about my lost swimmer with the green swim hat; and, going back lots, there was that bizarre case that kept us all on a high, of the probation officer, Deirdre, who kept an interview room in our Nottingham County office and one newcomer, a quiet lad from Newcastle who transferred to our area looking for work was taken onto her caseload. My office kept a list of lodgings and we found him a comfortable place on Dennis Avenue at the top end of town. At the bottom end was Ericsson Telephone Co. which later became Plessey PLC and Deirdre managed to get her polite young probationer a job there, he even bought himself a bicycle to cover the distance. Deirdre spoke well of her Geordie lad who always kept his appointments and caused no trouble.

Then after a few months he disappeared. His landlady came to the office wanting to know what had happened. Deirdre was loth to put out a warrant for his arrest, for he was such a nice lad. Then the landlady's daughter came to enquire and alarm bells began to ring. It turned out that his landlady and her daughter were both pregnant. They both wanted to marry him. Squabbles between mother and daughter became screamingly abusive and poor Deirdre was counseling them at casework level. The mother had a daughter and the daughter had a son. Adoption proceedings were initiated then quietly dropped. Judge Harvey may not have appreciated the task of working out the relationships of the two children or the search for the father whom we thought had returned to Newcastle and gone back to sea. The observer beheld these two women pushing their prams side by side, eagerly consulting with people from our side, wanting to know if we had any news of the man in their lives. It was pleasing to note that the relationship between mother and daughter had changed for the better and, despite our professional alarm, neither child was at risk, both appeared loved and wanted. But the observer lacked the satisfaction of carrying the case forward, for those two infants are now teenagers and it would be good to know how they relate to each other.

Being a peasant at heart I treat all professional jargon with suspicion. Coming from an unlikely source I picked it up later with Lizzie. "Claudia and negative capability, a term which doesn't appear in Modern Social Theory or elsewhere."

"Nothing to do with social work, darling man, it means being satisfied with only limited knowledge, unreasonable expectation by an observer can be damaging. Keats invented the term, mid-nineteenth century."

Deirdre's darkly hilarious problem and its aftermath has hung in my mind for all these years. Now this: for how many years will this murdered infant lodge in my consciousness. In all my working life I never met a case like it. Fate just has to wait till I retire before it deals me a smacker. Well, that's fate! As for Maeve, she's probably right: Just flotsam. If I'd left well alone, the tide would have taken the poor little thing out.

Periodically the police comb the slopes of Montana de Guaza and drive the hippies out from the caves. Los Cristianos does not figure largely in the Hip Travel Guide for there is still a noticeable guru influence among the majority. But broadly speaking our minor league hippies aren't a bad bunch, they decorate local towns with music and song, sell small pots and picture cards at car boot sales, get work in the tomato sheds; some are in the local prison at Granadilla, and if some are drug dependent I have no inkling of it. This observer wonders if the mother of that poor discarded infant is a cave-dwelling hippie, or maybe a transient from North Africa or maybe some laddish British girl like one of those females evicted from Basi's Los Angeles Apartment two years ago who was so fat it was hard to tell if she were pregnant or just obese. Most likely the observer will never know, yet, dissatisfied with half-knowledge, he still wants to know. Knowing how others respond is an essential element of social order, they may tell the observer to bugger off - but at least it is a response and the case can be closed! But right now the police are doing a hippie hunt among the rocks and caves.

Dick is more concerned about Jesse and his own problems: it takes him much longer to get his socks and shoes on; arthritis is making dressing difficult for Jesse also, and he has to fasten things for her because of her wrists and shoulders. Walking is difficult, but - typically with arthritis - if Dick rests a while he can continue. He won't allow Maeve to do all the shopping, mainly because of Cardiac Hill and he can't get up there without stopping a few times. Jesse spends a lot of time in the garden, she tries to read but her eyesight... She needs new glasses, poor old love.

There is an excellent German optician in Los Cris who doesn't cost the earth. We could buy a pair of glasses for her, but it would destroy Dick's self respect, not to mention the self respect of Jesse. They would dearly love to go home, an old people's flat, sheltered accommodation, anywhere that has local health care. His sorry state reminds me of that empty apartment in Costamar, another English couple, she died first and he didn't know what to do, wandering around in great distress for days, then he died. No relatives came, the apartment stood empty for two years. The goldfish were rescued but that was all. The couple have marked urns at Adeje, nobody visits. Dick knows the story and, of course, so does Maeve, the story had wide circulation before we arrived here in 1985, and right now death is occupying Dick's mind, so anything to make Jesse happy will make him happy.

I remind him that we cannot remake our lives, we have to take what is handed out. "Stand fast, Dick, and take it as it comes. There is no other way."

"Dead right, mate. But it's fuckin' hard"

Have they discussed death? Death has to come, there is no putting it off. I had no training in terminal counseling but I know both parties should be present. No good with only half a team, and then God has to come into it and, whilst I humbly admire the pastoral work done by churches, I find all ideology offensive and difficult to deal with.

"What about your daughter, Dick?"

"Her! Aint seen her for months. It's that Maud woman next door and her fuckin' cat that gets my goat. It got shut in our kitchen where Jesse had got some stuff in trays to cool and it led to a fuckin' argument. Women and cats! I tell you Alan mate, they think more of fuckin' cats than husbands. Tell you what, I'm going to wear a collar with a bell on it and see where that gets me! But it's Jesse, she gets these palpitations. Our girl's a nurse in Australia. I wouldn't go there to live - all those poisonous snakes and bloody great spiders, sharks and crocodiles - no way, matey! ... Will you write, Alan?"

"Okay Dick, I'll give it a go."

"Good on yer, mate."

Something like: We can talk with the local Lions and get a subscription, and apply to the British Club for some material assistance. In their present condition we think your parents are not well enough to fly home without escort.

And a copy to her brother. So let's shame the buggers! This is modern social control at its very best, the existence of restraint, the inhibition of impulse and control of violence in social life, but I am no longer in the social control business, thank God, so I can behave like an ignorant member of the public! Gives you a great feeling sometimes!

<< Previously: Family Notes

Rescue Mission >>

Cristimar home page

Return to home page

Click here to return to Alan Mann's home page

     Text & paintings © Alan Mann 2006 - 2010