How did you spend the heatwave? I spent mine paddling in the sea and being scared out of my mind. I’ll tell you about the sea in a bit.
It started with a call I received late at night from a number I didn’t know. I was in bed and about to turn out the lights so didn’t answer, even though I had a hunch who it might be. A follow-up text confirmed my hunch. Which was fine, as this friend disappears from time to time and I worry about her. A couple of days later, as the country baked, I thought I’d give her a bell to see how she was. The text itself bespoke someone at ease with things, which pleased me.
A man answered. “Ah,” I said. “I was hoping to speak to —. Is she there?”
“Call this number again,” said the man, “and I’ll put a bullet through your head.”
I have to say I was impressed by that “through”. It gave the impression of someone who knew about ballistics, and had a big gun. The problem is that my friend knows where I live, and so presumably this gentleman did, too. Add to that the fact, as I told you all last week, that someone had asked after me at the pub, and I began to feel somewhat uneasy.
Of course, as a book reviewer, I am no stranger to death threats. I do not often write a stinker of a review but when I do it raises an author’s hackles. I once wrote something sniffy about the Hay Literary Festival and someone told me that its organiser, Peter Florence, was going to send someone round to break my legs but a) they were joking, Pete would do no such thing, and b) it was, what, 16 years ago? All water under the bridge.
So I said, “oh, OK”, for although I am fond of my friend I am also fond of my brain; we’ve been through a lot together. But it is interesting having something to worry about other than money or not getting laid. It puts things into perspective. I even stopped worrying about the heat. But I also turned off the location on my phone. (This is bullshit, by the way. Your phone always knows where you are, and if it knows, then someone else can find out, too.)
A couple of days later my phone rang again. It was The Number I Must Not Ring Unless I Want Etc. This posed something of a dilemma. Was it my would-be assassin saying he was having trouble finding my address? They’ve been doing renovations and haven’t stencilled the door number back on the gatepost, and it can get a bit confusing round here.
It turned out to be the friend I had been trying to contact in the first place. She sounded cheery. “Hello, Nick!”
I was a bit less cheery, although glad to hear her in a good mood.
“You do realise what happened the last time I called this number? Someone threatened to put a bullet through my head.”
“Oh, that was just Pete.” (Not his real name.) “He thought you were someone else.”
“So he’s not going to shoot me? Because it got me rather rattled.”
“Of course he isn’t. Pete, say sorry to Nick.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” said a voice from what sounded like the other side of the room.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been apologised to by a potential assassin but the effect is liberating to say the least. I laughed a little hysterically for a few minutes and then went to the shop, spent the last of my money on a bottle of whisky and poured myself a large one. A really large one. Do you remember that scene in Scarface when Al Pacino has his ex-boss shot, and shoots a corrupt cop himself? The boss’s bodyguard looks pretty scared, and Pacino and his friend confer on what they’re going to do about him. Then they offer him a job. Pacino’s pal slaps the bodyguard’s back and says, “You got a job, man!” The bodyguard picks up a bottle of Jack Daniels and takes a big slug from it. It was like that, except I used a glass.
And then I went to the sea. I took off my shoes and socks and rolled my trousers up over my knees. (“I grow old, I grow old… I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled…”) The sea was warmer than I have ever felt it in this country: Mediterranean. The breeze was coming down from the scorched interior of the country; it felt like a hairdryer. It was low tide and I lay on the damp shingle and had a smoke while looking out to the horizon and the winking lights of the Rampion array. I reflected on the fact that the beach slopes in such a way as to form a natural support for the back, like a sun lounger. The sun itself had set but there was still some light in the sky. Someone further up the beach was playing bongos, of course; a dog zoomed, kicking shingle up everywhere, out of its mind with happiness. I now had no money and I wasn’t getting laid; but the main thing, and I’d like to think the best thing, was that I wasn’t getting shot, either.
[ See also: Are extreme heatwaves the new normal? ]
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special