I have a six-year-old son without whom I would not dream of going on holiday. Partly, I admit, because it is illegal to leave him behind alone, but also because I have come to realise that a young child is, contrary to all the legends, not a nuisance but a vital holiday accessory.
The very first holiday that my wife and I took with him was, in fact, to recover from his arrival. He had had an abnormal heartbeat before birth, and my poor wife had been confined to Guy's Hospital for over a month before delivery, which is quite long by normal labour standards. His delivery was tricky - indeed, his heart stopped beating as he arrived, but it was started again by electric shock, became normal and has been normal ever since. Still, we were exhausted by these shenanigans, so we booked an immediate holiday for all three of us.
" Where are you planning to go? " said the heart surgeon.
" Madeira," we said.
" Madeira!" he said. " You can't go to Madeira! "
Good heavens. Was there something awful about Madeiran food we didn't know?
" Why not? "
" There are no good heart people on Madeira. Not that I know of. Nobody I trust. You might need one for Adam. Look, I'll give you a list of places you can go to, with good cardiac consultants available.... "
The list included Cuba, Uruguay and Bergen (Sweden). Sweden was too cold and the others too far. We stuck to Madeira. Luckily, nothing went wrong and a lot went right, because the Madeirans turned out to be mad about children and Adam's presence made the holiday. We could hardly walk the streets of Funchal without people stopping his push chair to inspect the contents. We could not go for lunch at the hotel without his being taken from us bodily by the waitresses and paraded round the kitchen. (Other guests looked askance at us as loud billing and cooing broke out in the kitchen and all cooking stopped dead for a while.) Even going out at night we took him in a basket and instead of being ejected from smart restaurants as one would be in England we were given preferential treatment. Mark you, it helped that he slept right through all the dinners we treated him to.
If we had chosen to take our first holiday abroad somewhere else we might not have stumbled on the use of a child as a passport. Some countries do not delight in children. France, for instance. There is a persistent rumour that the French and Italians love children and admit them into their lives in a way in which we don't. This is true of the Italians. They seem to love having children around and delight in them. The French have children around too, but insist on treating them as premature adults. Otherwise they are not much tolerated. No free-and-easiness there, I'm afraid. Sorry, monsieur...
Of course our first taste of a child-friendly culture had been Portuguese, Madeira being part of Portugal, and we were back in Portugal proper before he was out of nappies, and this was a great success too, because although he was now too old to be carried off into kitchens at lunch-time, he was the right age to be carried off by other families. In the sort of slightly scruffy, neighbourhood eating-places we liked to frequent for lunch, there were always other children milling around, and he would always be invited to join their gang, and by the time we looked round he would be sitting at another table or, more likely, out on the front doorstep joining in with their games. I have to admit, looking back, that Adam may have met more interesting people on holiday this way than we did, and that he may well have looked upon us as his desirable holiday accessories...
(A word of warning here. The plastic carrier bags that many Portuguese shops give away free are thin and transparently pink. So was the British brand of bag we had taken out in which to dispose of used nappies. The result was that when we were discreetly, as we thought, disposing of soiled nappies, many Portuguese thought we were accidentally jettisoning our shopping and would run after us swinging our discarded nappies and press them back into our hands. I always meekly accepted. Was I too ashamed to admit the truth, or was my Portuguese simply not up to: "Senhor, have you never seen a soiled Pamper before ? " I shall never know.
As Adam has got older he has provided access to more ambitious places. Aeroplane cockpits, for one. When he was a baby we were never invited up on to the flight deck, but from the age of three onwards he has regularly been asked to visit the pilot and I have always gate-crashed with him. The time we were going to the West Indies is the occasion I remember best, because just at the moment when the pilot turned round and said to Adam, " And what's your name? ", Adam pulled a handful of plastic dinosaurs out of his pocket and said, " Adam, now these are my dinosaurs, this one is a brontosaurus, this is a diplodocus, this big one is brachiosaurus... " and the poor pilot, instead of giving Adam a lecture on how to fly planes, found himself at the receiving end of a fairly lengthy palaeontological talk from a four-year-old.
(When his handful of plastic dinosaurs ran out, Adam said: " I've got some more down in my seat where my Mum is. I'll go and get them. Stay here till I come back! " And to give him his due the pilot didn't leave the plane before he came back. )
The part of the West Indies we were off to was Dominica, a sentimental pilgrimage to a place I'd stayed in as a teenager. We stayed for some of the time at a very friendly beach hotel called Castaways, which was two hundred yards along the beach from the next door village. It must have looked like one of those unspoken barriers which exist in exotic holiday places - the posh hotel next to the native quarter, and never the twain shall meet.
Adam didn't know that never the twain shall meet, and was off along the beach like a shot once he realised that there were other children there. We trailed along after him. By the time we got there he was already enrolled in a football match, which was a bit embarrassing for me as he had never played football before and wasn't going to do England much credit. But who cared, apart from me? He had a whale of a time in the next week or so, was off like a shot to join them before breakfast every day, and was accepted by the locals long before us.
(I was the next one to be accepted, because I had lived in Notting Hill for a long time, and so had a lot of the returned Dominicans. One old woman I met there had spent most of her adult life in Acton, West London, and was not sure she had been wise to come back. I told her that now I was out in the country near Bath, I really missed the Portobello Road. " Honey, " she said, " not as much as I miss the Portobello Road ! "... )
And so it has gone on. The last exotic trip we took was a year ago to Cuba, for the Havana Jazz Festival, where - unable to find baby-sitters - we took Adam to each late night concert thinking that he would go to sleep in our arms, but he didn't. Instead he made friends with Cuban families in the audience and danced with them till he was returned to us before midnight. In the airport on the way back home the Cuban customs official looked gravely down at Adam and said, " Well, muchacho, how many girl-friends did you have in Cuba? " This is the sort of question that I can never think of an answer to. Adam is made of sterner stuff. He lifted his hands and flashed his fingers. Ten, twenty, thirty....
This year he will be seven and starting to lose his childish ways. A pity. I shall miss him. I shall especially miss his extraordinary habit - picked up from heaven knows where - of slipping his hand into the palm of some stranger he has taken a fancy to and looking up into their eyes, and saying: " I love you ". This has alarmed or bowled over hundreds of people, including air stewardesses everywhere, a rather nice middle-aged gay American in Dominica, another American on the same island who was professionally engaged in making waterfalls, and a waitress in a pub near Yeovil, who I heard a minute later saying to the cook in the kitchen: " I've just been told by a male customer out there that he loves me. "
Brief stunned silence.
" Good God! Is he nice-looking? "
" Yes. "
" How old? "
" About five. "
One day soon he'll stop saying things like that. I sometimes wonder if I could take over. Would I have the nerve to start slipping my hand into strangers' and saying: " I love you "... ?
I think not. I had better just enjoy him while he lasts.
Sainsbury’s Magazine 1993