‘AN IM­PROMPTU VA­CA­TION – AND THE END OF MY CHILD­HOOD’

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Gh Spotlight -

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

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