Published On: Sun, Jul 8th, 2018

Conversations while swimming

Chris Morvanby Chris Morvan

The woman I’m talking to is almost naked and so am I. So is everyone else in the vicinity, for that matter. But the woman and I can’t see much. Just each other’s head, really, and arms wafting around. The rest is a dull, ever-morphing blur.

That’s because we are swimming. In the sea.

Carmen (not her real name) is here on vacation. A gentleman doesn’t ask these things, but I gather she is in her 70s. We have been talking for 10 minutes and I know all about her family and a fair bit about her. She is a retired teacher from New York, her husband is an attorney and they have been coming to St Maarten for 40 years.

It’s over-developed, she says, and she knows the man responsible, certainly for the Simpson Bay part. She used to swim a lot at Mullet Bay, years ago when the Shah of Iran’s wife used to go there.

Carmen is thrilled to discover that I am from Guernsey, because she is a fan of the book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which has recently been made into a film. The story is told in the form of an exchange of letters and concerns the occupation of the island by the Germans during the Second World War.

When I was still in Guernsey 10 years ago and working in a pub, we used to get flocks of American women coming in for that very reason, and marveling at the interior of the blue granite building, which I didn’t have the heart to tell them had been refurbished just a few years earlier, so what looked like centuries-old wooden paneling with a story to tell had been put there by paunchy, t-shirt-wearing workmen with electric band saws and cordless power drills.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is that Carmen and I are swimming, and that pastime is surprisingly conducive to conversation.

A few weeks earlier I had listened to the life story of a hairy Londoner with an accent that, I’m afraid, made him sound like one of the Great Train Robbers, participants in the 1963 robbing of a train outside London. Most of them escaped from prison and one, Ronnie Biggs, made a new and very public life in Brazil before coming home to die and doing a short stretch in the slammer, only to be released on compassionate grounds.

My new friend – let’s call him Frank – was too young to be one of these men, and his stories of being a commodities trader, ditched at the age of 50 because he was too old, contained no trace of skullduggery or following in the footsteps of a jailbird father. He was now in considerably reduced circumstances but still swanning around the Caribbean, helping wealthy people to move here from the UK.

Frank left the water in a hurry when his bronzed, bikini-wearing young wife appeared to put his beer bottle in a garbage bin. She had stopped swimming and marched up the beach without a word as soon as her husband and I started talking, and all in all it pointed to them having been in the middle of what he might have called a “barney”, I would call a row or argument and Americans know as a fight.

Compare these easy, congenial conversations, though, with my fully-clothed, on-land encounter with a Scottish woman the day before Carmen.

We’re in a sports bar watching England-Colombia in a World Cup match. The place is full of Mexicans who have recently seen their team eliminated from the tournament and have switched to the nearest Latin American option, so I, alone on a little leather sofa, am feeling isolated.

But lo, as Shakespeare or the King James bible might have said, what should appear but a red-haired, pale-skinned woman of about 30 years. She sits on a tall chair at one of those high tables and gets excited when a chance comes England’s way.

At half time I approach this fellow-countrywoman and she turns out to be Scottish, which is unusual because the Scots tend to be anti-England in sports matters and most other things. She’s here just for a short while, waiting to get a cruise ship out.

During a tense second half that goes on to extra time and a penalty shoot-out, I find myself thinking that her travel arrangements suggest she works on a ship, rather than being a passenger, so when the football is finished I go over to ask her.

I put my hand on the back of her chair and she turns and glares at it as if I’ve invaded her personal space. She grudgingly divulges that she does indeed work on a ship. As a singer.

Given my profession, I am always looking for story ideas.

“Really?” I say with innocent delight. “I’m a journalist and I like to talk to interesting people.”

“Really,” she says back, but it’s not a question and it’s not friendly. And she struts off to pay her bill.

Perhaps I should have suggested we strip to our underwear and go for a swim. But then again, maybe not.