‘So, you’ve come from the Algarve,’ the immigration officer said, looking through mine and Leo’s passports. ‘The good life, huh?’ He was a middle-aged man with short spiky grey hair. A smile cracked though the official lines.
‘Yes,’ I said, slowly, suspiciously.
‘Well, I hope you haven’t brought the rain with you!’ he said.
‘So do I. Looking forward to some sun.’
He laughed and gave me the passports and waved down at Leo who was sitting in a pushchair I’d found on the way from the plane.
‘Ciao-ciao,’ said Leo, waving back.
‘Ciao-ciao,’ the immigration officer said.
This was a new experience. A friendly immigration officer and free pushchairs at Gatwick. So far, so good. All would be well. We’d survived the flight and the plane had landed (I had carried Leo away from the cockpit). We would have a good time, meet lots of old friends, get the camper van and drive back to Portugal. I was sure that Leo would love it and air passengers from Faro could relax.
It was indeed warmer and drier in the UK than it had been in the Algarve where the rain had been torrential for days. The thunder had shook the house and the lightning had replaced lighting.
We waited for the cockney Portuguese taxi driver in front of twenty rows of sweets and chocolates at W.H. Smiths. Leo grew twenty arms, more like tentacles.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ John (João) said, as I took some jelly babies from Leo’s hand for the umpteenth time. ‘Bloody M25. Accident. Had to come off and come through the villages.’
Nothing new there then. Another inconsiderate driver crashes.
The traffic in the villages was bumper to bumper. Leo got bored of saying, ‘car!’ and ‘truck!’ and fell asleep. But everyone else was busy. Even if their cars were reduced to caterpillars they were talking into invisible microphones or phones, or browsing files. Along the pavements people walked and talked on mobiles, got in and out of cars in three swift movements, released or belted up children in car seats in seconds, carried shopping, walked dogs with a plastic glove on one hand. Even the elderly scooted along on electric scooters.
England (at least this part) was busy. And rich. No litter, no fag ends, no graffiti, no dog shit. Not even any weeds. Every fence post was nailed in and painted. Every flower planted by numbers. So it seemed to me.
It was dusk by the time we got to the daffodil-lined village. An old couple quick-stepped around the pond and three young women exercised on outdoor gym equipment on the green. There were some brand new shiny slides, swings and roundabouts. Leo will like that, I thought. But, the next day, after sliding down the baby slide and the bigger children’s slide several times Leo began to do what he really loved doing – picking up litter. After depositing an errant crisp packet into the bin he still wasn’t happy. Finally, he found what he was looking for. A momentary pang for Portugal, I suspect. He held up the fag end victoriously.
I, meanwhile, craved afternoon coffee and cake but there was no coffee shop in the village. I persuaded my mother to take us to Oxted where I found one with a children’s corner and wine so we were all happy. One small cappuccino, one small slice of carrot cake and a large white wine. £10.50! Busy, rich and expensive.
Needless to say, we had brought the rain with us. But I was too busy on my mission to buy the camper van to pay much attention. I left Leo with my mum, and an old girlfriend, who I’d hardly seen for thirty years, came with me to Cambridge on the train to see the van I’d been drooling over for six weeks. As we walked out of the station we were greeted by twenty million bicycles – many of which were parked in the air. I don’t remember Cambridge as being a cycling city. I only remember one of my Japanese students from the UEA had fallen into the river from one of those silly punts. My fault, I’m afraid. But that must have been… twenty years ago.
The trip wasn’t in vain. I bought my automatic La Strada and proudly slithered back over the QE2 to Kent.
The next day Leo started coughing, a runny nose.
‘Strange,’ I said to mum. ‘He’s never ill.’
‘It’s the plane,’ she said.
I contented myself with the fact that now that I had the camper van Leo would never get sick from being on a plane again. And no one would ever get kicked in the back or be deafened by screams. And, of course, Leo would love it.
‘Leo, shall we go and pack some things into the camper van?’
‘Don’t you want to come with me?’
‘Noooo!’ he said. And started crying.
It got worse. As I triumphantly made the bed and stacked up with Spaghetti hoops and a bottle of red wine, Leo got clingier and louder. This was not looking good. The day before we were due to travel I dressed him and noticed a rash.
‘Mum, look at this?’
His skin felt like sandpaper and the whole of his front was covered in spots.
‘We need to call the doctor.’
‘You’ll be lucky.’
I was lucky.
‘Aha,’ the doctor said, as soon as I took Leo’s shirt off. ‘I’m fairly sure this is Scarlatina. There’s been an outbreak. It was on the news last night. It’s not serious. Antibiotics will soon clear this up but you must make sure he takes it all. You’ll be okay to travel. Well, travelling with a sick child will not be easy but he’ll be okay.’
A disease that needed antibiotics sounded serious to me, but I was hugely relieved that we’d got the appointment and a prescription for antibiotics.
‘It’s not with sugar,’ the chemist said aggressively. ‘And it needs to be kept in the fridge.’
‘Oh?’ I said and shrugged. What did that mean? But at least I had a fridge in the camper van.
It meant Leo wouldn’t take it. I tried everything. I tried different spoons, I tried sugar, I tried those oral syringes. Every time he spat it out and cried and cried.
I looked up Scarlatina that night. It is considered either synonymous with, or a mild form of Scarlet Fever. Scarlet Fever? I didn’t even know it still existed. Antibiotics must be taken.
The next morning I tried orange juice. He took a sip and then cried and cried. I was packing up – difficult while carrying 12 kilos.
‘Leo, don’t you want to go in the camper van?’
I mixed the antibiotics into his milk and he finally drank it and fell asleep so I was able to belt him in and get going. Relief. Fortunately no one had crashed on the M25 so traffic was moving – albeit slowly – and I got almost to Portsmouth before he woke up. Then up the ramp to the ferry. We’d made it! We watched from the deck as England receded. The ferry was very different from the booze cruise I remembered ten years ago. There was even a children’s play area, lots of eating areas and twenty-three and a half comfortable hours later we were in Spain.
As we chugged south to Salamanca and into the sun I exhaled stress and inhaled peace – despite the tin mugs or something rattling in the cupboards. Leo had long stopped crying, his rash was fading and he was watching out the window. I took off a jumper every two hundred kilometers. We stayed on campsites. It worked! I learned how to fill up and empty the various tanks, we heated up food on the stove, stocked up the fridge. We played on the slides, met other children, walked by the rivers. Leo loved it. It is a good way to travel with a baby/toddler (preferably not with Scarlatina). You have everything with you (I even have a changing area for Leo) and tin mugs don’t break. Sometimes it was difficult packing up (as Leo’s natural tendencies are to unpack) but I learned to put him in his chair and give him the ‘iPa’ half an hour before leaving. I drove while he slept and then for another couple of hours.
By the time we got to Portugal I wanted the trip through Spain to last longer – particularly after spending thirty minutes in the ‘Foreigners’ layby on an empty motorway trying to get a stupid machine to accept my credit card. Then as we drove through the mountains of Monchique it started raining again. I drove round bend after bend on the Eucalyptus-lined roads. For the last half an hour of the journey we saw no one – not even a dog. Only the old rusty red tractor was still there. For a moment I felt disappointed to be back. But I reckoned we had seen enough cars and trucks to last for a while. And now we have the van, one day soon we can go on another little adventure.