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 differenta lot less funto 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 acidthe first time
for both of usand 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 shiftperhaps 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 cliffsabout
the height of the top board in a municipal poolinto 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
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 Dyers 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.