The Two Blondes

I met Sally when we were 3 . By a swimming pool. In Tobago. My parents were on holiday. I learned to swim, which was a moment of huge excitement that I still remember: the freedom of swimming ONE WHOLE LENGTH without the silly armbands, and then swimming underwater with my eyes open. Beside the pool was another blonde – my Doppelganger – who viewed my swimming with a somewhat jaundiced eye as she had swum, like a fish, since before she could walk. Our parents knew one another but the little girls had never encountered one another before. It could have spelled disaster (parents always think their children are going to be friends: ‘tis not true!). But in that moment of Sally peering down at my – less than tidy – swimming and me looking up at someone who seemed to be my double, a friendship was forged. And has continued.

We became inseperable, rushing down to the beach for Great Adventures. At the end of the holiday, when we returned to Trinidad and Sally and her parents remained in Tobago, there were gut-wrenching howls of tears. It mattered not a jot that we both lived in Trinidad and that promises were made by our respective mothers that, of course, we would see lots and lots of one another. Which we did, as much as was possible with our living at opposite ends of the island, before Sally’s parents moved to Tobago full time.

Then I was ill. Really rather horribly ill. My mother brought me back to England and I spent weeks in Great Ormond Street. We don’t dwell on that: it’s a long time ago. When we went back to Trinidad, I spent more time in hospital. As a “convalescing exercise”, as much for my mama as for me, we decamped to Tobago. And Sally.

I can remember it all so very clearly. As I grew stronger, so our adventures grew. And our friendship blossomed to something that was – and is – set in concrete. My ma and I stayed at the same hotel where Sally and I had originally met (my papa came over at weekends) and every morning Sally would appear. Her mother and mine would do Mummy Stuff (Coppertone plastered all over their girls, and reminders not to talk to strangers) and off we’d set, down to the beach. A million steps…I’ve been back, I think those steps number about 50.

That beach is on the Atlantic side of Tobago, so not crystal waters and nary a wave: there was a current, a tide and breakers. But it was our playground. And we swam and swam and swam, me building up my strength and Sally extending her ability in the water.

In today’s world, some would say that our mothers were irresponsible, bordering on the insane, to allow these little things free range access to a beach, the sea and all sorts of untold dangers. Life was a lot more innocent then. And we had watchdogs: the chaps at the beach bar attached to the hotel, local fishermen and a whole host of others.

My mama had to return to Trinidad, and I stayed on with Sally (our plan to create a camp in the bush below her house was the only time Sally’s father put a dampener on tomboyish tomfoolery: a compromise of making a camp on a balcony was suggested. It was mighty uncomfortable sleeping on concrete slabs, and the camp lasted one night).

The magic continued. If we weren’t “interviewing” holidaymakers (we talked to EVERYONE: we made friends with someone who played Tarzan) who found their way to Bacolet Beach, we would be sauntering along the sands at Pigeon Point. And swimming and swimming and swimming. We were rather good at swimming! When we were about 16, there was a Vogue photoshoot on the beach at Mount Irvine. Sally and I happened to be spending the day there. We did our usual swim-swim-swim thing and finally emerged from the water (bear in mind that neither of us fitted the profile of Vogue models: rather round blondes, and not overly tall), to be asked if we’d mind swimming backwards and forwards across the bay, as the movement – or some such nonsense – added to the “effect” the photographer wanted to create. So we did. Over and over again. Our payment was a very good Club Sandwich and a Coke. Somewhere, in an archive, lurks photographs of us two in the background.

Throughout this blissful time, we behaved as though we owned the island. And I guess, in the innocence of growing up, we rather thought we did.  Had either of us been thought to be precocious by our parents, we would have been reined in.  It was just that everybody knew the Two Blondes.

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