Are you heading off on holiday or into a traffic jam or both? Ted Hughes’s wonderful poem ‘Work and Play’ encapsulates the contradictory nature of this time of year – swallows soaring in the sky at work, and people stuck in cars on their way to play at the seaside. It inspired me to write the following piece, not quite a short story, not quite a travel article, but something between the two…
We spy on the lovers all week as they bill and coo as lovers do on holiday, sometimes soaring, sometimes squabbling, constantly embroidering strands of midnight and cream over the turquoise silk of the swimming pool. The garden rooms at Club Teos in Turkey are crisscrossed with balconies and terraces, draped with sweet-scented honeysuckle and purple bougainvillea; they offer the perfect refuge for young romeos and juliets. So why does this maverick pair of swallows choose to construct their nests on the fringing of the huge parasol shading the pool? Don’t the foolish birds realize they are doomed to disappointment?
The other swallows of summer – the sailors and windsurfers, the mountain-bikers and tennis players, the water-skiers and kayakers – are equally industrious, making their own patterns on the water and the land. The water-skiers sew silver threads across the empty early morning sea, while the mountain bikers, bursting out of their fluorescent lycra, power up the dusty Turkish tracks that duck and dive through villages and fields.
Mealtimes are a problem: the food delights the eye and seduces the tastebuds. Sumptuous buffets are set off by fantastical sculptures made from carrots, courgettes and aubergines; water melons are carved into intricate roses, pineapples transformed into a splash of sunrise, and seas of prawns, fish and shiny black mussels are netted into gleaming patterns.
‘Have you tried this grilled meat? It’s delicious with that spicy tomato sauce!’ We work hard at not eating too much and happily fail, tempting ourselves and each other. After all, so much activity needs to be fuelled and holidays are not the time for abstinence.
Within a day or so, faces have become familiar. Not just the lively, suntanned, sunbleached-blonde Neilson instructors – ‘Hi guys!’ – who urge us on to enjoy ourselves – ‘All right there guys?’ – but also our fellow hardworking hedonists. The slim tennis-playing sisters are out early on the courts, perfecting their serves and their slices, their wicked drop shots and cunning volleys. By 11 each morning the four genial ‘old salts’ with the alcohol-rounded bellies and sturdy legs of the lifelong sailor, are ensconced in the same easy chairs in the bar, from where they watch the dinghies dancing in the bay below and dissect their own past races in blow-by-blow accounts. Literally. The three young northern lads, freed from their computers for a week, never stir before lunchtime and are dozy as hair-gelled hedgehogs awaking from hibernation, but soon make up for lost time.
Neilson veterans, we are pacing ourselves, trying to resist the temptation to cram our day full from dawn to dusk and beyond. Some afternoons we do nothing but laze by the pool, watching the swallows darting in and adding to their home when they can seize the fugitive moments of quiet between the surfbusters and scuba-divers. Each night, the nest is cleaned off. Each morning, the swallows begin afresh.
There are other young lovers. He disappears off on challenging bike-rides. She sits by the pool, crocheting, conjuring a delicate web out of nothing. When a group of the tiny, sun-shielded ‘sea urchins’ march along chanting the ‘Grand Ole Duke of York’ with the cheerful Neilson girls and token guy, she casts them a thoughtful glance. At mid-morning she strolls to the shady bar, where the curly-haired Pan takes infinite pains in the preparation of her tricolour caffé latte. Then she sits looking out over the sea at the white triangles of sails, a wistful Penelope waiting for Odysseus.
On the last day we exert ourselves to borrow the mountain bikes and puff up the hill and through the tangy-smelling pinewoods, and then freewheel down, down, down the zigzagging road to the ruined remnants of an ancient city. Teos was once one of the 12 great cities of the Ionian Empire, built by workers as skilled and industrious as the swallows. Long vanquished, long vanished, like the swallows’ nest, most of it has been wiped away. All that survives is the temple to that god of wine and pleasure, Dionysus, surrounded by drunken olive trees. No protected site this, but a heap of carvings and pediments and pillars jumbled carelessly together, its only guard a huge old dog with a spiked collar, who dozes in the sunshine. We drift through the ruins like ghosts, and the golden guardian never raises his heavy head. Under the spell of the jovial god we lose ourselves awhile, laying on the sun-warmed stones, listening to the soughing of the silence, rediscovering our past.
The last night means certificates, congratulations and farewells. We will all be heading back to the cooler northern climes soon. Back to work, back to unreal lives never as vivid as this one. Looking over towards the pool we see the swallows have been tireless: there is a long tangle of mud and dried grasses, swaying in the evening breeze. At a neighboring table our Penelope is sitting with her husband, one hand in his. The words ‘next year’ and ‘kids’ clubs’ waft towards us with the scent of evening honeysuckle.
It is said that in their lifetimes the distance swallows fly is to the moon and back, and yet time and again they return to the same place to build their nests. Perhaps they are not so foolish after all. In the seasons to come, will they still be wheeling and squealing over the pool, delighting another audience with their daring acrobatics?
There is only one way to find out.