SOMBRERO
Geoff Dyer

About twenty years ago, just after leaving Oxford, I applied for a job at the famous Lucy Clayton Secretarial School in London. Two days a week, one teaching English language, the other literary and cultural stuff. Anything really. I also had some teaching at a crammer and this flexible combination of well-paid, part-time employment suited me well because I had only just moved to London and was very into nightclubs which, back then, were very different—a lot less fun—to how they became later. You stood around and looked. The job at Lucy Clayton was like being in a nightclub in that there were many opportunities for looking. I was the envy of my friends. I was the envy of myself. The girls were aged between 16 and 22, most were 18, had left school after A Levels. Some badly wanted to be secretaries, but I liked the ones who had been sent there to get straightened out after taking too many drugs or having abortions at some expensive school or other, the kind of girls I saw at nightclubs.

I resigned after a term for awkward practical reasons and was then free to chase after one of my former students, Claire, the most expelled, attractive and fashionable of them all. She spent part of the year in the Caribbean where her mother was developing tourism on an island, Anguilla, which has since become a millionaire resort. In London we went to nightclubs and slept together and took acid—the first time for both of us—and in the summer I went with her to Anguilla.

We flew to a big island in a big plane and then to a smaller island on a smaller plane and from there we flew to Anguilla on a very small plane. Two days earlier I had never been on a plane and suddenly, in the space of 24 hours, I had been on three.

I was not used to travel and although the island was idyllic I became bored quickly. The sea was perfect and though I was bored then I would not be bored now. Back then I missed nightclubs too much. We did acid a couple of times and I remember the pelicans being like pterodactyls and the waves going backwards. We had strange conversations. Claire would say, "Have you got shattered nerves?" and I would say that I did or did not depending on how I was feeling.

One day we went out on a boat to Sombrero, a rock in the middle of the sea, about half a mile across. There was nothing on it except bird shit and a lighthouse, and once every fortnight a boat arrived with supplies and a new shift—perhaps the right word is "crew" or "team"—of lighthouse workers. We went out there and I sat on the bow sprit (the front part of the boat, the part that sticks out over the water), hanging on to the rigging as the boat lunged through the water. Claire was seasick and one of the crew chucked a bucket of water over her to clear up the vomit. There was a group of about five of us and when we got to Sombrero we crossed to the other side of the island where there was an inlet. The sea entered this inlet through a very narrow gap of maybe ten feet. Then it widened into a circle, a pool almost. You could jump off the cliffs—about the height of the top board in a municipal pool—into deep water. Then, if you swam out beyond the little gap in the rock, you were in deep blue. The waters were shark-infested. One of the people we were with, Lorrie, had a spear gun and he harpooned some fish which alarmed me because I was worried about sharks being attracted by the blood-scent. Then I stopped caring because I was so happy jumping off the rocks into the pool.

At first we jumped cautiously, inching tentatively towards the edge. Then we began taking running leaps, in pairs, holding hands, waggling our legs and arms in the air and whooping like Texans at a rodeo. I liked jumping off the rock but I also liked snorkelling along beneath the water and seeing people come crashing through the blue in a white surge of bubbles. A couple of times I swam out between the narrow gap in the rocks, into the fathomlessness. It was a deep experience. There was nothing but blue in every direction. It was lovely but you felt so utterly out of your depth that it was easy to become frightened. We were in the sea, there were sharks in the sea. As soon as I thought about sharks I swam in again but then, because it was so beautiful, I swam out again. Then I swam back in and looked at the others all jumping off the rock and I climbed up and jumped off again myself. We kept doing it over and over.

 

You can read Sombrero in its entirety in the premiere issue of Swink.

Geoff Dyer’s books include But Beautiful (winner of a Somerset Maugham Prize), Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage (a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award), and, most recently, Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It (Pantheon, 2003). A recipient of a 2003 Lannan Literary Fellowship, he lives in London.

 

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