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Elephants & Enfields - Chapter 5: P.N.'s Place Shack

Updated: Jan 3, 2023


P.N.’s Place Shack

Shacks - Junaswadda - A Near Miss - Wrong footed by Cats - Halcyon Days - Little Russia-on-Sea P.N.’s - Waking a Dragon - Juvenile Shoplifting - Taking a Beating

Cock Jobs and C**t Jobs - Rasa

To the north of Mandrem, the road winds out from the verdant shade that shrouds the village and crosses a low bridge and narrow flood plain in full, blinding sunshine before starting to climb again on the far side. A steeply banking right-hander tests our Activa’s four-stroke resolve as we whirr ever higher and follow the contour of the dry-grassed hillside to its brow. The reward far outweighs the trial for, prostrate before and below us, lays wall-to-wall Arabian Sea. At this time of day, the lethargic, blue swells are ticked with pinpoints of mirrored sunlight like thousands of tiny, popping flashbulbs as they sigh onto the palm-backed strands of Junas Beach. For the first time since our arrival, we can smell and taste the brine. The view is stunningly beautiful.

Dotted amongst the palms at the bottom of the slopes is an avenue of beach shacks with their attendant ‘coco huts’.

All along the beaches of Goa, set back against the dune line are the ubiquitous ‘shacks’. Restaurants and bars as different from each other as their names... ‘Holy Fish’, ‘Om Shankar’, ‘Lovely Jubbly’, ‘Papillon’ and a myriad ‘Daves’, ‘Petes’, ‘Viveks’, ‘Mikes’ and ‘Anthonys’.

The ‘shack’ tradition in Goa is far removed from its laid back image. In years gone by, fishermen would have their homes right on the beach, selling fish to fellow villagers or trading them for vegetables and rice or fenny from the toddy-tappers. Some of the fishermen’s wives saw a way of boosting their income by cooking pots of traditional fish or vegetable curry and selling meals to locals and visitors both. The right to serve an icy-cold Kingfisher to lolloping sun-worshippers today comes at a price, and I don’t mean having to see your beach cluttered with colonies of bloated westerners, wearing thongs and sarongs and standing on one leg chanting ‘Om’.

A complex system of application, lottery and state licensing is enshrined in Goan law to decide allocation of shack space along the beaches. A decision is made on the total number of shacks permissible each year. Ninety percent of the allocation goes to shack owners who have had previous experience of running a beach restaurant, ten percent reserved for first timers. A non-refundable application fee is charged of around 5,500 Rupees, and if the number of applications exceeds the permissible number of shacks, then lots are drawn to decide who will be successful. There is also a factored-in preference toward ‘locals’. This process becomes subject of much argument between rival shack owners and, indeed, rival shack associations. The older-established S.O.W.S. (Shack Owners Welfare Society) is about as likely to agree with the newer T.G.S.O.A. (Traditional Goan Shack Owners Association) as I am likely to clear my mortgage whilst retaining a detectable pulse. The lucky proprietors who are chosen then part with some 25,000 Rps for their single season license.

Lengthy wrangling over these ballots frequently stalls the issue of licenses. The resultant delays invariably raise the accusation that they are precipitated by some of the starred hotels, who, it is suggested, wish to keep ‘their’ stretches of beach shack-free. The fisher folk who started the tradition feel that they should not have to be a part of the lottery system and should be exempted the trial and the cost. Imputations of corruption and bribery abound…surely not? Not here in India?

Regulations regarding the running of these premises are no less complex and are, at times, laughable. The authority is supposedly obliged to supply fresh water and electricity to the shack, though sometimes objections are made by adjoining land owners and access issues are rife. Authority tourism inspectors prowl the beaches to ensure that no more than five pairs of sunbeds and five parasols per shack are laid out on the sand and that unlicensed shacks are not trading. Beach cleaners are to be paid by the shack owners, through the auspices of the village panchayats.

Once all those little obstacles are overcome, then the shack owners only have to poach a few staff from their neighbouring entrepreneurs, enlist the assistance of the extended family, re-level their chosen pitch and build like crazy in order to be ready for the rapidly-swelling volume of visitors.

They spring, mushroom-like, from the sand hills around November in a myriad guises and sizes, from simple lean-to’s to intricate three-storey, dance floor bedecked, hammock-strung extravagances. Many along the extreme northern and southern beaches have overnight huts… one room dormitories constructed from bamboo and clothed in woven palm leaves. Spiked into the sand for the winter duration, they are hired out to visitors by the night or the week or the month.

The road to P.N.’s Place Shack, and onward to Arambol, follows the contour of the hills, past the delightful ‘Department of Forestry’ JunaswadaGardens. It’s a formal planting of coastal species which spills downward to beach level and is one of the few state-tended gardens to be seen in Goa. It is worthy of a stop as it is a receptacle of trimmed hedges and sculpted trees, colourful shrubs and flowering plants. It’s also the potential last resting place of anyone as unfit as I, and stupid enough to attempt the gradient of the footpaths in the full heat of the day. We agree to stop another time and press on towards our destination.

After twenty-five years of marriage, it is hardly praiseworthy that a man should recognise all of the influences that would cause his wife’s thighs to clamp tightly around his hips. I am unexceptional in this regard. I am aware that there are two things which might cause Hannah’s legs to stiffen as they were doing right now.

The first of these I think I can safely rule out. I am happy to believe that anecdotes recounting tales of women dismounting motorcycles and being unable to support themselves, or contain the veritable pints of ooze within their gussets, are urban fiction.

‘Cause one’ eliminated, I come to the stark realisation that ‘cause two’ is responsible. This dawning is synchronous with the piercing cry, ‘Eeeee’, which comes from over my shoulder. It arrives at a decibel level sanctioned only for lighthouse fog horns, rape alarms and my ginger kitten, Ceefa, when he comes through our kitchen sash-window and has underestimated the growing speed of the potted, spiky cactus on the window cill.

It seems that an admiration of the scenery is not exclusively mine this morning. The pilot of ‘cause two’, the 11.35 Querim to Panjim omnibus, has decided that endangering life by driving on the wrong side of the road in the face of oncoming traffic is not reason enough to deprive his passengers the opportunity of a scenic view either.

My eyes flick from the oblivious expression on the face of the Indian driver to the startled expression on the all-too-familiar face reflected in the expansive, mirror-like, chromed radiator grille in front of me. I will the bike to swerve quickly enough to avoid the impending impact. Time goes into slo-mo.

In the following milliseconds, a bizarre thought enters my head…what a great momento that chromed bus grille would make, polished and adorning our surviving relatives’ wall above the mantelpiece.

‘Sorry,’ the British ambassador will say in an unexpected phone call to Blighty, ‘they were turned into mush, but they did leave a fine impression of their final, mortal moment. Would you like it?’

‘Will you give it a rinse first?’ my mum will ask.

Will we be indented in profile or head-on? Will our faces still be recognisable? The ultimate life-sized holiday snapshot.

Sadly, I’m old enough to recall such embossed, metallic abominations displayed with pride by those sufficiently devoid of taste, or immune to ridicule, back in the sixties and seventies. Usually copper elephants trundling out of the Kenyan scrub as I recall.

Suddenly, time returns to normal, we avoid the opportunity of discovering the truth of re-incarnation and the necessity to exchange our return flight seats for horizontal hold accommodation. The bus bumper clips Hannah’s footrest and we slew into the red gravel, spiny shrubs and ubiquitous roadside litter with panache, flair and the smile of the reprieved.

How we both resist the urge to exclaim ‘Goodness me, the proximity of that motorised transit vehicle was minimal.’ is a mystery.

‘Fancy a drink?’ is the best I can muster. H nods.

The worst indignity of all, I muse, would have been getting splattered by a bus with ‘JESUS IS MY FRIEND’ printed on the windscreen sun strip.

Just beyond the sprinkling of onlookers, who felt that the view of a gory road traffic collision would be more entertaining than that of the JunasGardens, sits Blue Sea View bar. One in a small cluster of hillside shacks built out on stilts from the slope, the Blue Sea View boasts a balconied dining area with blinding aspects over the beach below. I bag a prime table in the sun. H diverts to the loo, probably to check her underwear. On her return, the waiter swiftly fulfils our drinks order; a brace of Roddy’s and Coke.

Roddy’s, (compulsorily pronounced with a ludicrously exaggerated Scottish accent) is another of our stupid pet names, this time attributed to McDowells No.1 whisky. Indian whiskies, don’t laugh, are largely fine and smooth and, we would contend, the equal of their British forebears. We have made it our mission to try most of them; Royal Stag, Royal Challenge, Bagpiper, Signature, Antiquity, Officer’s Choice, all the subject of meticulous research. Cost-effective research, too, with McDowells at about one sixth the price of scotch in the UK. Most people are surprised to learn that of the top ten best selling whiskies in the world, six are Indian and the only scotch in the top four is Johnny Walker at number two. Bagpiper is number one, our Roddy, number three. Hannah slumps into the plastic garden chair next to mine.

‘Fuck me, that was a close one…’

H doesn’t let me down.

‘…and you should pay more attention to the traffic and less to the flora and fauna…and stop rubbing my leg.’

‘I’m not rubbing your leg.’

We glance below the oilcloth table covering to discover the culprit.

‘Ooooh, look!’

Flat on her back with all four paws in the air and displaying four of the finest pairs of tits that I’ve seen so far on this trip is one of Goa’s other attractions for us…kitties. This little girly is adorned in typical local attire; thin white(ish) coat other than her darker ears and tail tip and an expression which says ‘Gotcha!’ Gotcha she had, because whilst I scanned beneath the other tables for the ‘didsies’ (translation: kittens), H was ordering her a portion of Kingfish. Don’t ‘tut’, roll your eyes and give me that expression. I bet you’ve got your shared, stupid, idiosyncratic names for things too! The didsies remained out of sight but she purred and yawned and rolled on the floor (the cat this is, not Hannah) and sharpened her claws on the back of Hannah’s heels. This appeared to be rather painful but, cruelly, my mirth was prematurely curtailed when an ice cube lodged in my windpipe and I was forced to expel my Roddy’s and Coke through my nostrils. Not an attractive, or comfortable, experience.

Needless to say, the arrival of the huge, fully-garnished seafood platter coincided perfectly with the flick of a tail and the disappearance of the cats neat, pink ring-piece around the corner of the kitchen and off into the shrubbery.

What is it with cats? Just when you think you’ve sussed them, they wrong-foot you and leave you feeling like a twat. Here’s a perfect example…

Following one of my bi-weekly runs to Bristol and back earlier this year, I walked the 272 paces back to our bungalow just around the corner from the metals warehouse where I had parked up the lorry. Well, it’s 272 paces on the way home on a Friday afternoon, but maybe closer to 410 on my way in on a Monday morning.

The metals company I work for is on a bijou trading estate just off of the Redruth by-pass, a dual carriageway on which our home stands. Our place is the last in a row of four bungalows and a farmhouse accessed by a short, gravelled cul-de-sac around the back.

The rear aspect - now I’m sounding like a bloody estate agent! The back of our houses open out onto overgrown meadows enclosed by Cornish dry-stone walls and birch and ash trees which form the playground for our cats. These meadows were part of the reason for our decision to move here some ten years ago; somewhere safe for the kitties to gather burrs and slugs in their coats and generally source various rodent-derived organs for us to tread on with bare feet en route to the toilet in the night. Yet, despite this feline cornucopia, the little bastards still insist on skipping around in the front garden, just yards and a low wall away from the traffic, which causes H and I infinite worry and stress. We make jokes about hoping not to find furry Frisbees on the by-pass each time we come or go in the car.

Returning to the day in question, I strolled up the gravel track and as I passed the farmhouse, was curious to see a black bin-liner rolled up on the field wall. I guessed that the kids who lived there had left their football kit or something.

I unlocked the back door, clicked the switch on the kettle and kicked off my steelies.

‘Eve?’ came the call from the back door, ’Hello?’

I recognised my neighbour, John’s, voice.

‘Hi mate, come on in.’

John looked sheepish and hesitantly said ‘You’ve got a ginger cat, haven’t you?

I instantly stopped breathing and could hear my pulse in my head. I knew what was coming next.

‘No, no, no, no, no, no. not Cato.’

My brain was screaming but my mouth wasn’t. Cato was my boy, my surrogate son. He was a big, stupid, soft, yellow cat who picked me as his human when he was tiny and slept every night curled in the crook of my arm. He was the one who, as a kitten, cost us a fortune in call charges because he would continually sit on the dial buttons on the telephone when we were at work. He rang Boston once and I don’t mean the one in Lincolnshire. His favourite trick was to bite your toes if you foolishly allowed them to protrude from beneath the duvet.

We had called him Cato because of his fondness for hiding in obscure places and pouncing on you as you entered a room. Pink Panther fans will recognise the name of Inspector Clouseau’s Chinese manservant.

John handed me the bin liner I had seen earlier.

‘I found him on the road this morning and picked him up so as not to…sorry mate.’

John turned and quietly left. I dared not look in the bag. Instead, I scurried about the house doing a head count and checking his favourite ambush spots. No Cato. I returned to our back room and my tears pattered on the black plastic as I unwrapped my baby and squeezed him hard and close. I must have sat for over an hour kissing and cursing him. I couldn’t stop, nor wanted to stop, the stream of tears dripping from my cheeks and lips and chin onto his ginger fur.

I hadn’t had the courage to phone H at work but it wasn’t long before I heard the crunch of her car tyres on the gravel driveway and the sound of my feeble, sniffling, recount of events.

‘Are you sure it’s Cato?’


Obviously, H was as devastated as I. We had never lost a cat on the road before.

‘I’d like you to arrange a cremation for me please.’ My voice faltered as I explained our misfortune to a sympathetic veterinary receptionist.

‘Yes, it’s Cato.’

We had used this vet before and had a little row of beautifully mitred and varnished wooden boxes on the mantle above the fire, each inscribed with the name of one of our ‘children’. We have agreed that when our time comes, all of our ashes will be mixed into a huge urn and, if no-one wants to smoke them, they’ll be scattered before the wind.

‘Can you do the individual cremation and put him in a little box for me?’

‘Yes, I know it’s £120. Yes, I’ll fetch him down now.’

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried driving and crying at the same time but it isn’t a recommended form of multi-tasking. We drove in silence the short distance to the vet and returned to the house to sit and ponder our loss.

It was H who broke the silence with the words...

‘I’d better phone the kids and tell them what’s happened.’ Lee and Kellie, Hannah’s children from her first marriage, are both cat devotees too.

I was still temporarily blinded through a veil of tears but the conversation went something like this…

‘Hello Lee, alright?’

‘I’m ringing with some sad news. Cato was killed on the road today…No…Yes…No…I know…We just got back now...’

‘...E!!!!!!!!, LOOK! LOOOOK!’

I moistened my sleeve and followed Hannah’s startled gaze to the floor, to where a big, stupid, soft, yellow cat was rubbing his very-much-alive face up the leg seam of her jeans.

Our enquiries never sourced the origin of the unfortunate doppelganger but I’m glad we were able to give him a dignified despatch and a little, mitred, varnished hardwood home for eternity.

‘You fit, pissflap?’

With that compliment, I pay the tab whilst H stashes the untouched kingfish in the undergrowth for ‘Felix aloofus’ to find later.

Just when I think I’ve had my share of discomfort for the day, I am reminded of the first rule of scootering in hot countries:-

Do not jump onto the saddle of your scooter after leaving it the midday sun, unless you enjoy the sensation of peeling molten, black, seat-vinyl from the back of your thighs. I stifle the gasp, bite my lip and bear it like the man I am.

Just beyond Blue Sea View, the road relinquishes its grip on the dry hillside and slides downward into the flood plain of Mandrem Creek. The creekside pools which feed the quilt of rice paddies and handkerchief fields of onions, chillies, radish and salad vegetables are a magnet for Black Kites ( Milvus migrans ) and, today, they are joined by a pair of Booted Eagles ( Aquilapennata ). They circle and swoop at tree height above the murky water and then wheel and spill the wind to drop to the surface and pluck the silvery fish. Stork-Billed and White-Throated Kingfishers invariably peg the electricity wires along this stretch; The Stork-billed (Halcyon capensis ) with their orange / red feet and peach chest plumage and the smaller, browner White-throats (Halcyon smyrnensis ). If you’ve ever wondered, and who can’t have, the nomenclature of the Kingfisher has a bizarre derivation from Greek mythology.

Ceyx, king of Thessaly, a region of Greece, was happily married to Alcyone. She used to call him by the pet name Zeus. This so angered the god Zeus, that, in true, forgiving, benevolent, god-like fashion, he threw down a thunderbolt at the ship in which Ceyx was sailing, committing him (and, presumably, everyone else aboard), to a lung-rupturing, watery grave. Ceyx appeared as a soggy apparition to Alcyone to explain his fate. Alcyone was, understandably, a little peeved for she threw herself into the foaming briny in an attempt at suicide.

Keeping track of this? Stick with it, this might crop up in a posh pub quiz one day too.

Finally, Zeus, out of compassion, metamorphosed the hapless pair into Halcyon Birds…kingfishers. Big hearted of him, eh?

The term ‘Halcyon days’ then referred to the seven days (three either side of the winter equinox) when Alcyone’s father, Aeolus, god of the winds, calmed the waves and stilled the air so that his daughter could lay her eggs in safety.

I’m not sure what they were on, but the psychotropic drugs must have been really good in fifth century BC Greece. Strangely, the phrase is still used today to mean calm and peaceful times.

Calm and peace indeed engulfs us as we hang a left at the Lavish Café (spelled Laveesh) on the next junction and head into the trees on a just-about-single-track road. Weaving between the jaywalking mongrels, colourfully clothed local ladies and extraordinarily prim, uniformed school children, we toot our way along the narrow lane.

“Неужели мы там еще?” Hannah asks.


“Неужели мы там еще? Are you deaf?”

Obviously I should have replied “Что вы говорите?”

To which she would have said “Когда в России”

A clutch of tiny shops, a herbalist and a fruit and veg’ stall signed largely in Cyrillic, is our justifiable excuse for believing that we have been space-warped into an alternative, Russian, dimension. Suddenly, bananas aren’t bananas, they are бананы. Eggs become яйца. We are now in the land of ‘Слоны и Enfields’. Hang on, how can the word elephants be shrunk into six letters?

Twenty years ago, the tiny houses here would have been pared by the occasional, alien ‘hippy stray’ from the Arambol Road cutting down the rough pathways to the dunes, but today it is a veritable foreign enclave. During times of slacker planning rules, foreign and Indian developers alike bought land here at a fraction of it’s worth from the subsistence fishermen, farmers and toddy-tappers. Even those who resisted irrefusable offers have largely abandoned their traditional homes and built two and even three storey buildings on their plots to exploit the influx of visitors. And who could blame them for exchanging a handful of fish-stained rupees for a fat wad of roubles? Not I.

It has to be said that the explosion of long-term visitors to ‘Mandremkov’ and ‘Arambolshevik’ is the subject of no little controversy, amongst locals and visitors alike. As an Englishman, I am probably best qualified, but least entitled, to comment on colonialisation in all it’s forms, but I shall save that for a later chapter.

Left again, and the road loses its tarmac toupee and evolves into a narrow, rutted track between the randomly scattered dwellings. Palm trunks, piglets and pullets in the shadows vie to become the inaugural sacrifice to the god Honda. Chalkboards and hand painted signs betray the locations of yoga schools, ‘Houses of Jesus’, ayurvedic centres and spiritual sanctuaries. Just as the righteousness and healthiness of it all starts to make me feel queasy, the track evaporates, the sky opens up and we’re spat into a grassy coconut and banana plantation behind the dunes. The onshore breeze wafts through the tops of the ranks of widely-spaced palms and rustles the fronds. The sea can be felt and smelt but not yet seen. Our Activa’s tiny wheels start to sink readily into the softened sand.

‘Well, I can’t imagine why Laurence of Arabia didn’t trade in his camel at the Jerusalem Honda showroom on his way to Damascus.’ Quips H.

‘If you’re going to take the piss, you can get off and walk.’ I retort.

The dual-pronged, pointy-fingered attack on my ribs from the pillion does nothing for our stability and my manly riding prowess finally comes under question when I have to drop my foot to the grit. I feel a failure. The desiccated grass barely anchors the sand here and the bike protests as we weave and lurch across to the huge ten metre high sandbank at the back of the beach, the last hurdle on our odyssey. The bike park at P.N.’s Place shack is easy to find…a tree-shaped shadow in the hinterland next to a circular, hand-painted name sign which has all the artistic endowment of a two-year-old’s fridge picture. I kill the engine and we slide gladly from the saddle.

Now, P.N. knows that we are visiting in early January, but he does not know exactly when. We’ll creep up and surprise him. We grab our bits and pieces and make our way up the foot-scorching dune between the clumps of Spinegrass, Glory bowers and Chaste trees. The shack sits atop the sand hill and comprises enclosed kitchen at the back, small bar, and about a dozen plastic garden tables and chairs in the shade of the palm-clad wooden roof. Red, Chinese lanterns on long flexes pendulum in the breeze. Despite his assurance that a raised, bolstered and cushioned ‘chill-out zone’ was for the benefit of guests, we cannot be convinced that P.N.’s prime motivation for building it was anything other than personal. From the first time we met him down at CocoBeach, on the banks of the Mandovi River where he ‘worked’ in Vivek’s Shack, P.N. has been dedicated to elevating the pursuit of idleness from aspiration to art form. We were foolish enough to believe that entrepreneurship would fire him into a state of ebullience, but since entering the world of shack ownership a couple of years ago, he has cultivated a ‘hands-off’ style of management that borders on coma. I swear it wears me out just watching him perfect his inertia. It would not have surprised me in the least if we’d found that Arambol beach had become a Mecca for sloths who fly in from South America to study P.N. and hone their torpor.

To give you the edge over the sloths, let me tell you a little about P.N. He must be around the age of thirty-five. Married, father to a cute daughter, and living, as most Indians do, in the all-embracing, complex, political and, frankly, horror-enducing atmosphere of the extended family. His home is a twenty minute bike ride away from his shack.

Visually ? Think Indian Elvis Presley. Not the Grand Old Oprey, ‘Old Rugged Cross’ Elvis Presley; more the bacon and peanut butter sandwich, amphetamine and codeine, Las Vegas Elvis Presley. He has an arid sense of humour, and an infectious, schoolboy smile which can switch between innocence, guile and bemusement in a flash.

A glimpse around the corner of the kitchen immediately endorses the accuracy of our assessment of our host. There are no customers in the shack. Neither are there any signs of a waiter. Protruding, but only just, from the giant cushions and elephant embroidered throws of the chill-out area is a black, hairy belly barely contained by a red ‘England ’66’ t-shirt and faded black denim jeans. The impulse to wake P.N. by pouring the contents of an ice cold bottle of Kingfisher down the front of his trousers is unbearable.

‘Don’t even think about it.’ Hannah warns.

I heed her admonishment and reach for a half-full pepper pot on one of the tables. A light dusting on the top lip amongst the black stubble should do…and it does. The urban euphemism, “Didn’t know whether to shit or go blind” could easily be applied to P.N.’s unscheduled interruption from quiescence. By his expression, he had done both. The speed from which he went from prone to vertical was only exceeded by the gazelle-like virtuosity with which he vaulted the low, bamboo fencing at the side of the shack and scythed my heavy-footed bulk to the ground. I hadn’t anticipated such athleticism.

‘Catmannnnn, you cherry aitchar.’

Even with my short experience of Konkani, I have learnt that ‘Cherry aitchar’ is not complimentary and, I believe, questions my sexuality.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried it but to defend yourself with all of your facial orifices packed tightly with sand is no easy feat. Fortunately, having dragged myself virtually upright, the pressure of P.N.’s embrace pretty much expels most of it.

Over the course of my life, and I’m sure this applies to many other men of my age and upbringing, I have rarely been the recipient of a hug from a man. That’s not a complaint as such, it just tends to catch me off guard when it happens. I think that my father’s reticence to display any form of physical affection towards me in my formative years certainly contributed to my self-consciousness. Like many fathers, in my observation, he seemed to favour his daughter over his sons. Whether that was attributable to her being the firstborn or being a girl, who knows? I can only recall one occasion when he pulled me close in embrace. It coincided with the only time that I can remember being on the good end of an apology from him.

At the age of thirteen, my excursion into a life of crime had got off to a bad start. A classmate and I had concluded that stealing Callard and Bowser toffees and barley sugar sticks individually from the Stowmarket Confectionery Emporium’s counter was an inefficient way of satisfying our aspiration for rotten teeth. Grammar school mathematics had also reinforced to us that this ad hoc method of shoplifting didn’t rank very highly in the risk to reward ratios. With the sweet shop dutifully manned by a deaf, old codger, we decided that the way forward was to wait until a noisy lorry passed, vault the doormat with the bell-ringing pressure-plate beneath and ‘liberate’ the wholesale boxes from the shelving behind the counter. In similar fashion to ‘The Italian Job’, all was going swimmingly well at this stage. My mate had grabbed a box of Polo Fruits and my satchel strap was creaking under the weight of a box of Fry’s Chocolate Turkish Delight bars as we sprinted for our getaway vehicle. The 16:35 Stowmarket to Needham Market double-decker had spirited us away from the crime scene and back to our bicycles stashed behind the Three Tuns pub in Needham Market. Just the two mile ride back to the village and we were home free. Our skills in riding no-handed became invaluable, gorging as we did on our illicit gains as we pedalled in the afternoon sunshine. Anyone who remembers Polo Fruits will know that the tin foil wrapping had the tearing qualities of reinforced Kevlar. My partner-in-crime peeled off in the village of Creeting St. Mary and I was left to cruise the final half mile to the outskirts alone. The strains of ‘Self Preservation Society’ must have still been ringing in my head when, 100 yards from home, I saw my mum walking with some purpose towards me down the lane. Where on earth was she off to? She didn’t have the face of a mother anxious to welcome her beloved offspring to her bosom. It appeared more a mix of King Herod and Sturmbahnführer Otto Bastard of the Gestapo. By the time our paths converged I could tell that something was very, very wrong.

‘Right, open the satchel’ she barked.

Oh Shit!

Such was my delusion of invincibility at that age, I momentarily considered trying to bluff it out. My brain was scrabbling for a credible explanation like a plummeting parachutist searching for a second reserve ripcord…it just didn’t exist.

‘What do you call this?’ she asked, pulling the box of confectionary from my satchel.

Somehow I instinctively knew that she wasn’t expecting me to have given two kilos of Turkish Delight a name.

Due process consisted of my legs travelling to the house about a yard ahead of my body in a vain attempt to avoid the slaps raining down on the back of them. The humiliation of being paraded in tears past my smug, older sister and younger brother and several hours of fake sobbing in my bedroom, cunningly designed to emulate contrition, followed.

My father worked at a shipping company in London at the time and commuted between there and Suffolk by train. This meant that he didn’t get anywhere near pipe and slippers much before eight in the evening. As I sat in my bedroom willing a freight derailment somewhere around Colchester, time seemed to freeze. I was just considering whether or not I’d used up all my tears, and wouldn’t have any left to affect remorse to my father, when I heard the car start outside. Mum was leaving to pick dad up at the station. Not long now until I faced the music.

What a stupid expression that is…when it arrived, it was nothing like music; certainly not the kind of music I was used to. No melody, only percussion. Dad’s orchestral instrument of choice on that evening had been a fold-out, brass hinged and tipped, carpenters rule. Any thought of mock tears had long since evaporated as first my palms, and then my knuckles were treated to its caress. Only when the force of his stroke finally snapped the rule, and its splintered eight and seven-sixteenths inch tip spun to the floorboards, did dad consider that he’d gone too far. He seemed almost stunned and at once embraced me and couched me in his arms and gently rocked me until my sobs subsided. His admonishment was no longer directed toward my larcenous wrongdoing; more at my idiocy in having forced him to resort to such brutal punishment. Certainly now, and maybe even then, I thought it worth the bruised, blackened fingers to have experienced, if only for once in my life, the tenderness he showed me that night.

Still puzzled as to how we had been found out, I later learned from my mum that a Woolworth store detective had been watching us for some time and had observed us from across the street on the day of ‘the heist’. With the return of what was left of the proceeds and an assurance that punishment had been meted ‘in-house’, the shopkeeper, thankfully, decided not to notify the police and a curtain was drawn over the sorry incident. Coincidental then, perhaps, that, when engaged in an extension to my punishment, (that of lighting the living room wood burner each evening for a month), I should find at the bottom of the log basket, several tiny but tell-tale fragments of Fry’s Chocolate Turkish Delight wrapper.

‘Ellwyn! Kingfishers for Hannah and Catman!’

Almost as if a Bollywood director had called ‘Action’, P.N.’s Place was suddenly a blur with industry. Ellwyn arrived with condensation-bejewelled bottles of beer. Sateesh, the waiter, materialised on the beach steps. ‘Sid’, the chef, shuffled out from the shadowy confines of his kitchen, blinking as if he hadn’t been exposed to daylight in weeks and each carried the most welcoming of smiles imaginable.

The Goans have this incredible talent for making you believe that they have been spending their every hour since last seeing you in a state of limbo.

‘Thank St. Francis you came back this year,’ they infer, ‘I’ve not moved, nor eaten, nor slept, nor smiled this last eleven months since you deserted me, you heartless beast.’ And we fall for it too. It’s got to the point now that we feel obliged to visit Goa annually just so that they can all get up, stretch their withering legs and go for a slash. I glance over P.N.’s shoulder to see Sateesh smothering Hannah in a way which would guarantee anyone else an instant interior inspection of an I.C.U. He is an affable, hard working, mid-twentyish lad, more unworldly than he’d have you believe and has been P.N.’s head waiter for a couple of years. He has a strange, diamond-shaped face with a hint of Vinny Jones about it and a total lack of authority over his facial hair which is as likely to sprout from his forehead as his chin.

Sid, the chef, hovers near the curtain which hides the galley from view, and smiles. Unlike the stereotypical corpulent cook, he is a short, slight, quiet and unassuming man. In line with the stereotype, however, he appears as a mobile menu, with examples of his last eight culinary creations liberally adorning his apron and green t-shirt. Were a customer to query the qualities of a dish, the waiter could wheel him out to the table and just point at the relevant section of clothing. Scratch and sniff could even make a comeback.

‘What are you having dear?’

‘I’m going to go with a left breast pocket served with a side order of trouser waistband and a right sleeve jus…actually I’m a little peckish, couldn’t you just lean over the table and scrape that onto a plate for me now?’

Sid’s quiet nature is, I believe, largely attributable to his lack of spoken English. I imagine that we would display the same traits should they all insist in directing their conversations to us in Konkani or Hindi. Friendship with mine host aside, Sid is the other reason that this shack attracts our patronage more than any other. He is quite simply a maestro with food. Whether it be Goan, Indian, or Chinese cuisine or just throwing a fresh fish into a frying pan, Sid brings something special to food which we have rarely found in other beach shacks…and, believe me, we’ve tried.

The following hours are spent catching up on news, theirs and ours, and joking and smoking and drinking and squinting to see pictures on mobile phones and just being in the warmth of the breeze and their company. Can anything be wrong in the world today?

‘Look, we’d better head off before it gets dark.’

H is right. The sun sets around 6.30 at this time of the year and the sky’s hue changes from pinky apricot through burnt toffee to grey-blue in an instant. The brevity of twilight is because of the way that the sun sets at lower latitudes. Rather than at a shallow angle, as in the UK, the suns path is more vertical as it dips below the horizon here.

Whilst not averse to riding the scooter at night, the activity certainly holds special perils for the unwary. The locals are less likely to use their headlights than a Cornish teenager is of refusing a can of Diamond White and a shag behind Morrisons, and pedestrians are no more visible because they are wearing sequined and gold-threaded saris. Factor in the scourge of all two-wheelers not wearing visors, entomological roulette, and a simple ten mile journey becomes more hazardous than trying to open a corned beef tin with your bare feet. You really need to experience the intensity of the acid sting of Mr. Meal Moth, splattering onto your eyeball at forty miles per hour as you approach a blind bend in the dark, to realise just how perilous nocturnal biking becomes. You willcommend evolution for having the foresight to supply you with two eyes. That is until you plough through Mr and Mrs Meal Moth andfamily, then you’ll curse evolution for not providing you with three.

We pay our bill and say our goodbyes to P.N. and the lads and vow to get to the beach earlier the next day. You never know, we may even manage a meal and a swim.

The return ride along the hills above Junas Beach, and the heights overlooking Chopdem and the Chapora River afford unrivalled sunset vistas. The flame-red and mauve skies mirrored in the sea and the ribbon tributaries of the river are unfailing reminders of the beauty of Goa.

Once beyond Siolim, the blanket of trees canalise the road and lights from the oncoming traffic and the kerbside stores and restaurants seal the fate of the day. As we slip through the villages and hamlets, smoke from little fires built by the roadside from rubbish and fallen leaves is sucked along by the melee before filtering up through the trees and into the starry sky. Some plumes acrid from plastics, others fragrantly woody, both sting and bring tears to the eyes of the passer-by. We take our last right at ‘Goat Corner’ and onto the Baga Creek Road.

‘We need to get booze.’ I’m reminded.

Just over the bridge and opposite the site of Mackie’s Saturday Night Bazaar is our local ‘offey’. I swing in and relieve the cheery proprietor of a litre of Roddy’s and a bottle of Vin Ballet red wine for H. Buying wine in Goa used to be a real lottery…the kind of lottery where one of your chosen balls has been left in the cardboard box at the back of the whirly machine. Traditionally and understandably, affordable wine in Goa has been of the fortified port variety and, I’m told, should be decanted into a warmed, lead-crystal pitcher before being poured straight down the drain which needs unblocking. Some of the imported grapes which find their way into local wineries here and in Maharashtra …hang about, it’s no good, I haven’t the first clue what I’m talking about here. I can’t bullshit you; what I know about wine, you could chisel onto a Durex with a pickaxe. H however assures me that a Sula or a Vin Ballet red is fine if you have it cold…sorry, have a cold!

A short squirt alongside the creek and the Riverside Regency hoves into view. Sparkly, multicoloured fairy light reflections dance in the creek as I park the scooter alongside a dozen others and disgorge the unused towels and swimsuits from beneath the saddle. A glance at last years fake Rolex anchors the time at 7.30. We slip through the side gate, past the muted, telly-topped bar showing twenty-twenty cricket and the sprinkling of early evening diners bordering the pool. The palms, bedecked with helical chaser-lights in orange and yellow, scintillating candles on the tables and the warm lighting from the rooms conspire to welcome and re-affirm the homeliness of our chosen hotel.

When we reach the bottom of the stairwell to our room, Danny and Johnson are still perched atop a pile of laundry, striped towels this time, and still playing ringtones to each other. We catch them by surprise and as they jump to their feet, Johnson’s mobile clatters to the flagstones and goes silent before exploding into pieces. We’re unsure as to whether Dannys laughter is due to his mates misfortune, or relief that it was us and not the manager that appeared along the pathway.

‘Hello Sir, hello madam, did you have a nice day?’

Still the smiley faces, despite the cellular catastrophe. Having a mobile phone is a big deal to these lads. They mostly spend the season at the hotels and rely on them to keep in touch with their, often far away, families. We leave them trying to reassemble the Motorola jigsaw and clamber to our room.

The room boys had fortunately left the balcony door and the windows open. Even so, our sailbag in the shower had spectacularly percolated the room with that familiar scent, ‘Eau Des Chats’.

‘Fancy a Roddys?’ obliged H.

‘More than I fancy scrubbing cats piss from that sail bag.’ I reply.

‘You’ve got to admit that scrubbing cats piss from a sail bag is a cock job.’ She says.

Allow me to explain. In all but the most exceptional of relationships, there must be an accepted, if not expressly written, division in the household chores necessary to maintain harmony and prevent the home from being mistaken for a waste recycling centre. I am happy to accept that there are jobs which are better suited to the male of the species than the female, and vice-versa. I, for example, would not expect Hannah to shin up the roof tiles and replace the pointing on the chimney. Likewise, she wouldn’t dream of asking me to iron one of her blouses. Ergo, pointing chimney… cock job, ironing blouses… c**t job. The recent explosion in cock jobs is a good thing, I think. Being a thoroughly modern man, I’m not even averse to doing a c**t job or two. Put me in a pair of Marigolds and I’ll happily Brillo a pan whilst gazing out of the kitchen window at the sparrows mugging each other on the fatballs. It must be a generational thing; I’m pretty sure that my mum must have been latent bisexual, as I witnessed her doing many a cock job whilst my dad was snowed under with his duties as family food critic, general all-round list-maker, and d-i-y non-finisher. Go back to the time of my grandma and she must have been a full-blown hermaphrodite. She’d spark up a huge gas-fired cauldron filled with washing and polish my granddads shoes at the same time, whilst all I can ever remember him doing was swan around the house in braces with a half-shaved face and a foaming badger-hair brush in his hand, dispensing wisdom.

I choose not to contest that scrubbing cats piss is a cock job and throw the bag under the shower. My ‘Roddies’ and coke slips down a treat.

An hour spent watching Hannah trying to cover every last square millimetre of skin with either clothing, Deet or both, precedes our rejoining the throng on the creek road en route to Rasa Restaurant and the first of many curries. Goas dining opportunities are legion and exhaustive. Most eateries are low walled and canopied, al-fresco affairs. Those aimed at the tourist are typically either twinkly lights, tureens and tablecloths or plastic furniture, oilcloth and Sky football. Then there are the little gems; the tiny bars out in the sticks, tucked back in the cashew trees, owned and run by a husband and wife whose menu is so small that it isn’t even written down. There may only be a couple of rickety tables, often only one. Drinks will be Kingfisher, Fenni, Honey Bee or chai; food will be curry, ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’, most usually fish but occasionally pork or chicken, served with Indian breads or sannas (fluffy rice cakes).

Rasa falls into the twinkly lights category and sits opposite the site of Mackies night market. We are wafted to a table bedecked with candle, cutlery, chutneys and cruet. After the sensory assault of a day in India, melting into the padded wicker seats around our linen draped altar in the enveloping embrace of a snug evening becomes the epitome of relaxation. H rolls a couple of stigs and before the ash is ready to drop, our waiter, Abdul, has fetched a locally made, fish shaped, terracotta ashtray from the stack next to the ‘SMOKIN IS PREHIBITITED’ sign by the bar.

We order our curries; pomfret, a small flat fish fried in butter garlic sauce for H and dry fried chilli prawns for me. We opt to share a veggie sizzler. Two Indian whiskies with coke and a smouldering mosquito repellent coil for under the table see us settled and ready to indulge in one the world’s favourite meal-time hobbies, taking the piss out of…sorry, studying the other diners.

I guess being perfect specimens of humanity, sporting haute couture and possessing impeccable taste and refinement, qualifies all of us there to objectively ‘observe’ our fellow diners and their idiosyncrasies. All the classics are present. There’s the heavily tanned and gold-bespangled ex-pat types, whose vocal volume is designed to ensure that the entire eatery is aware that their holiday is of the three month, money-no-object variety. Invariably they ensnare a pair of relative newcomers to the delights of the region and attempt to impress them rigid with their breadth of knowledge and staggering repository of ‘tips for the ignorant’.

‘You’re doing what? Using the taxis from outside the hotel? I’ll give you the number of our driver, he’s awfully good and will show you everything that’s worth seeing here.’

This usually translates as ‘Use the guy who’s been humouring and royally shafting us for the last fourteen years whilst we’ve had our heads up our own arses.’ Then there’s the couple in lerrrrve. Dewy-eyed and holding hands across the damask, they’re oblivious to their audience and the fact that they’re resting their wrists in the aubergine chutney. Mrs. Ex-pat cleaves the tranquillity.

‘Of course we may have to fly home for a week to see that young Theo is safely home from Rutlish, but we’ll be back for another month at least.’

And who has not watched with smug superiority, the couple who have patently fallen out at some stage during the day, (I’m guessing over an overt indiscretion on the part of the male), and have decided that it would be far better resolved if discussed in front of an ample, multifarious and distinctly pious jury of diners.

Our food arrives at the table with all the pageantry of an 0-6-0 tank locomotive terminating on the Bluebell Line. H disappears in a cloud of garlic-smelling steam and a wholly unwarranted cacophony of sizzle. Not loud enough though to drown out the parting shot from the aggrieved girlfriend on the arguing-couple table.

‘She’s my sister for Christ’s sake!’

Ooooh! Bad move.

‘Britney!’ the bounder pleads, but his cry is left unanswered in a clatter of overtoppled chairs and departing flurry of holiday frock. He pays the waiter and follows her out into the anonymity of the trees whilst the diners all look at each other with that expression which is a mixture of prurience and amusement.We tuck in to our meal with gusto. A mere half-hour and several Honey Bees later, and we’re flomped in our seats, satiated. The combined effects of dinner, our first outing to the beach and the still lingering jet-lag prompt an early departure from Rasa and we return sedately to the Riverside. Traffic is still brisk on the Creek Road with swarms of two-wheelers and taxi loads of revellers heading out of Baga for the night spots in the hills and the late opening beach shacks along the coast. We park up the scooter a short distance from the hotel and, during the twenty yard walk to the gate, are asked about six times whether we want a taxi. Tired though we are, we decide that we can manage that distance without motorized assistance. The warmly lit poolside bar is still busy, the twenty-twenty cricketers on the telly are still hard at it under the Mumbai floodlights and the room boys are still comparing ring tones at the foot of the stairwell. We bid them goodnight as we climb to our room and are happy to succumb to the lure of the crisp, clean bed sheets.

‘Fancy a nightcap, my lovely?’ I enquire.

‘I’ll just have a mozzie inspection and a Bill Bryson please.’ H replies. I do the obligatory stock-still gaze for insects, followed by the naked, balletic prance around the room, flicking a bath towel at the slightest dark speck on the walls and ceilings before sounding the ‘all clear’. I take up my position alongside my beloved who, I can feel, has reaped the benefit of todays sun, and stab my pudgey finger at the microscopic button on the MP3 player.

‘Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson, chapter one…’

‘Didn’t we listen to this last night?’ H enquires.

‘How much of it do you remember?’ I ask.


‘Well. Shut up then.’

‘Give us your buttocks.’

I turn away and am rewarded with a hot back and a tweaked nipple.

‘There are certain idiosyncratic notions you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that…’ Zzzzzzzzz

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