‘AN IMPROMPTU VACATION – AND THE END OF MY CHILDHOOD’
Decca Aitkenhead was dazzled by her first holiday to Majorca, but there was a heartbreaking reason for the getaway, which she can only now appreciate…
In my archive of childhood holiday memories, one snapshot predates all others. I can see it clearly in my mind: an image of myself, aged seven, pressed up against the counter of our local village shop. Back in rural Wiltshire in the 1970s, the two-mile car journey from our hamlet to this post office constituted quite an expedition in itself, and I was beside myself with excitement as I strained on tiptoes to share our incredible news with the postmistress. ‘We’re going abroad! On holiday! It’s going to be my first time on an aeroplane, and my first time in a foreign country, and my first time eating paella, which is what they eat in Spain, which is where we’re going, only it’s actually an island off Spain, and you think it’s called MA-JOR-CA but, guess what, they actually call it MA-YOR-CA!’ The postmistress smiled down at my breathless babble. ‘Well, dear, that sounds very nice.’ Nice didn’t begin to cover it. As I saw it, five nights with our grandparents in the Majorcan resort of Magaluf represented the pinnacle of international jet-set glamour, and my three big brothers were equally wide-eyed as we boarded the plane, astonished by such unprecedented family extravagance. Buckling us into our seats, our grandmother warned us to expect the sensation of G-force at take-off, but the much more mind-boggling moment came shortly before landing, when the cabin crew – for no reason I could fathom – passed a basket of colourful boiled sweets down the aisle and invited us to help ourselves. For free. Even the loveliest package holiday resort can look bleak out of season, and Magaluf may well be the leastlovely of them all. On arrival, its charmless tower-block hotels and neon signs must have filled my grandparents with despair, but to my eyes the gaudy tat looked like Las Vegas. That the hotel pool was unheated in no way diminished my impression we had checked into a Ritz-carlton, and the mysterious novelty of a ‘continental breakfast’ cast a sheen of gastronomic exotica over the stale buffet we had in the morning.
Keen to look intrepid, we threw ourselves into the freezing pool, warmed by the glow of our grandparents’ admiration for our indifference to the cold. We took long afternoon walks along the coastline, skittering along the narrow coastal path high above the ocean. ‘You’re like mountain goats!’ I remember my grandmother marvelling. ‘I am like a mountain goat,’ I would repeat silently to myself in bed later, mouthing the words with pride.
Looking back almost 40 years later, my enchantment with one-star, off-season Magaluf seems nothing less than miraculous. In its empty grey streets of faded nightclubs and chip shops I saw only elegance – and I’d give anything now to recover some of that childlike capacity to be charmed. But much more bewildering to me now is my wilful blindness to the horror that framed the holiday, and was the whole reason we were there.
A week or so earlier, our parents told us our mother was dying. Just 37, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s obvious to me now that this impromptu vacation was to get us out of the picture while they came to terms with it. How our grandmother managed to confect some charade of holiday cheer for us while reeling from the news that her daughter was dying, I will never know. How it did not stop me having the time of my life is an even greater mystery.
The infinite self-involvement of childhood, and infinite selflessness of maternal love, are truly wonders of this world. On the final night of our holiday, we were allowed to stay up late. The four of us bunched together on the hotel fire escape, listening to the music from a nearby bar. As we listened to Sultans Of Swing by Dire Straits, I remember hugging my knees. ‘This is living,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is adulthood.’ And, in a way, I wasn’t wrong. When our mother died 12 months later, a week before I turned 10, our childhood was over. Magaluf would be my only foreign holiday as a child. ◆ All At Sea by Decca Aitkenhead (Fourth Estate, out now)
I’m bewildered by my blindness to the horror that framed the holiday
Looking back, Decca sees her holiday from a different perspective