The bathroom at the hotel was clearly made for old people. The mirror was so dark I looked like I'd been sunbathing all month instead of wrapped up in scarves and coats; the walls were a pink you imagine the innards of some especially coiffed-and-bowed toy poodle to be. The hotel itself was perched on the edge of the world; from the dining room, where I drank sweet sherry (filthy), dry sherry (slightly less filthy), and champagne (bubbly), all you could see was the cliffs crumbling into a murky brown sea, which heaved against the rocks below like someone had upset the bathwater. A dark patch on the horizon looked like a fogbank, or maybe some imagined promise of land.
"Look," he said, my love, linking one arm with mine and pointing with the other, "you can see Wales."
"What kind of whales?" I said, just to be cheeky.
It was cold and it drizzled on us. I was wearing a trenchcoat and my swanky red flowerprint dress (my "I won a writing contest!" dress) and was actually shivering when we entered the building. About five minutes later, drenched in sweat, my legs all itchy and my cheeks flushed, I wondered why I had wished to be warmer. Clearly some kind of temperature god had heard the fervent desire and turned the heating on in the hotel to approximately 120 degrees (give or take a little). I appeared to be the only uncomfortable person. None of the men were loosening their ties. All of the white-haired women retained their thick woolly cardigans. It was only when next to me, he started guzzling icewater at an alarming rate, that I realized we were just meant to grin and bear it and wish a very happy 90th birthday to Great Uncle Bert.
For 90, he was strikingly present. Any senility was hid quietly and completely behind a smiling wrinkled face, a smart outfit, a genuine interest in conversation, and the apparent ability to understand what was going on as well as anyone else in the room. He had been a great footballer, I gathered, and various members of his extended family liked to tell the story of how he'd been offered a place on some fancy national football team after the war but he'd refused because he'd just been married and had a son. They revered, it seemed, both his footballing skills and his sense of family duty, and all these things combined to make him, at 90, the paragon of a good Clevedon citizen.
"You've come all the way from California?" Great Uncle Bert said. "I bet the sea isn't this colour there."
"Sometimes it is," I said.
"If you look just there," Bert went on, "you can see Wales."
"I don't see any whales," I insisted. It was the only joke I could tell.
When I thought I couldn't sweat any more I decided I would take a walk to the bathroom. Surely it would be cooler out in the hallway, with the forest-green-and-purpleish-maroon patterned carpet and the glass cases displaying old photographs and silver cups. It wasn't. It was just darker, and smelled increasingly musty as I neared the dark wooden doors marked "Ladies". It was like stepping into Bill Bryson's England, where war veterans and their woolly-cardigan-wearing wives gathered on Sunday afternoons for roast potatoes, beef, and sherry in hotels that had once been grandiose but now looked slightly dilapidated and had somewhere along the way acquired the name "Marriott."
I accidentally showed my California roots when I ordered the fish with potatoes and carrots after the leek-and-potato soup.
"That's very brave of you..." said the mother of my love. My fork hovered over my food. One doesn't typically want to be called brave before digging into lunch.
"SHH," he muttered to his mother, in the same tone of voice I would have said it to mine.
"Well tell me," she said, "if you ordered cod in California, what would they serve it with? Salad?"
"I suppose," I said. "But they serve salad with everything in California. They even serve salad with salad, probably."
"It's just that I was going to have the fish, but I asked if I'd be served root vegetables with it and when they said I would, I decided not to. There's just something not right about eating root vegetables with fish."
"Oh dear," I said, and my cod-with-potatoes-and-carrots suddenly tasted slightly cold.
Then it was time for the group photograph. Revision: then it was time for the full-on-circus. Someone set up an absurdly long row of straight-backed chairs, and people started sitting in them. The rest of us hung back, hoping we wouldn't be called upon to sit in the front row. Perhaps, with any luck, we'd even be deemed not-part-of-the-family-enough and allowed to stand and watch the process with champagne flutes. Instead, we were picked like flowers and set carefully upon the stage, a row of us behind the chairs, another row behind that. The photographer rather disconcertingly handed a white napkin to the man in front and told him to hold it up so they could set the camera accordingly, but it looked like a blanched bullfighter's scarf. "Remember to put it down before we take the photo," someone giggled.
Outside, the brown sea went on heaving and Whales hovered on the horizon.