As I said in an earlier post, my novella The Slave House is loosely based on some time I spent in Portugal in the late 1970s. It was a difficult time, for Portugal as a whole and for me in particular, as those of you who’ve read the novella will know. But it wasn’t all bad. I saw dolphins and churches, and castles, and Cascais. Talking to a friend this morning, I remembered an episode that, for reasons that should become apparent, I decided not to include in my dark and bitter story of unwitting betrayal.
My memory of the event is bathed in autumn light so it must have taken place during my first few months in Setúbal, a coastal town with a working port where I worked in a private language school. The number of British residents in the town was small, extremely small, or my colleagues and I would never have received an invitation to attend a cocktail party, presumably via the British Embassy. The cocktail party was being held on a nuclear submarine, moored in Setúbal harbour, presumably on government business. It’s an odd thought that someone decided to use the brief pause from military duty as a PR exercise – perhaps the idea was merely to give the crew a 48-hour respite from submarine life. I remember being initially reluctant to go, imagining that my refusal would be seen as a cogent anti-militaristic stand, one drop in the coming tsunami that would sweep all armies away. I actually thought like that in those days, or think I did now. But I was persuaded to change my mind, by the promise of alcohol, or the chance of sabotage, or the thought of sailors, un-cooped up and keen for a little light relief.
There were three or four English teachers at the school, and a German woman, named Sabrina in the novella, so Sabrina she is. I don’t recall how we managed to get hold of an invitation for her, though I do remember another colleague, called Elaine in the story, wanting her included out, as Sam Goldwyn once said. We arrived together, embassy invitations and passports at the ready, and were taken down, one by one, into the belly of the submarine. Sabrina had on her trademark stilettos, and managed to skewer the air between two rungs of the narrow ladder with one of them, swinging perilously until a sailor reached up to support her bottom. She was wearing a pencil skirt – I may have learnt this term from her – and a tight-fitting white blouse. I’d asked her as we walked across the port how she managed to avoid visible panty line – that’s the sort of friendship we had – and she stroked my cheek with maternal affection and told me, and I should have known this already, that the best way was to wear no panties. She was – and I’m putting myself in the uniform of a sailor here – a sight for sore eyes. Blonde Louise Brooks haircut, bright red lips, wide-eyed. On a bright and busy street she turned heads. You can imagine the impression she made within the gun-grey men-only innards of a nuclear submarine.
The submarine, as far as I remember, had all its workings visible, pipes and cables running along claustrophobic corridors, more like natural tunnels with their curves and obloids and improbable lateral openings than anything man-made. I have a mortal fear of pot-holes and anything resembling them, and the submarine, horribly, did. I found it hard to breathe. Although no more than feet below the surface of the estuary, I felt the full weight of an imagined ocean on my skin and bones. I focused on the neck and shoulders of the sailor in front of me as we were led into what must have been the galley, the largest space on the vessel, little more than the width of an English double bed, and offered rum. The cocktail party was actually a rum party. It was excellent rum. Navy rum. The sailor I’d followed explained that no matter how much real Navy rum you drank you would never have a hangover, and I was foolish enough to believe this, and to believe that the man who was telling me might have a reason for getting me drunk. I was wrong on both counts.
We were taken on a tour of the submarine at one point, Indian file. I saw the bunks and imagined not some torrid tar-on-tar action but the sheer horror of lying in a space the size of a meagre bookshelf, with the metallic curve of the vessel’s skin only inches from my face and, beyond that, water, an immeasurably high, unscalable wall of water, extending in all directions. A world of water. I imagined the submarine buckling and myself being crushed between crumpling plates of steel. Beyond the bunks, at the business end I suppose of the submarine, were the torpedoes that carried the nuclear warheads. They were smaller than I’d expected. I may have sneered inwardly and thought toys for boys, as one did in those days. With a little more headroom, you could have mounted one and ridden it bronco-style, or pretended to. Someone cracked a joke about not lighting a match, but no one laughed. I was still sick with claustrophobia.
Back in the galley, more rum in my hand, I calmed down. It wasn’t until Elaine asked if I knew where Sabrina was that I noticed her absence. I’ve no idea, I said. You’d better tell someone, she said. You don’t want that German tart messing about with the war effort. But what I didn’t want was to get Sabrina into trouble. I set off down the nearest corridor. I can’t have gone far when I heard an odd sound, as if someone were struggling for breath, and then a thump, of something soft hitting metal. Against my will, I speeded up. Someone was calling behind me; for a moment, I imagined I’d breached some protocol and might never be seen again, be washed up at Scapa Flow with mysterious scars on my underarms. I hurried on towards the noise. Rounding a final corner, I saw Sabrina: her arms waving in ecstasy, her bare legs wrapped around the waist of a sailor, stilettos digging into his milk-white arse, a nuclear warhead rolling and shifting beneath their weight.