We got back into Portugal at midnight on a Friday. Reunited with our car at Lisbon Long Stay, we drove valedictory laps through some industrial estates before eventually finding our room for the night. Menna had booked somewhere cheap and cheerful and we had no idea what we would find. It turned out to be a huge ‘family room’ with a chintzy Louis XIV vibe, high up in an apartment block. There was no private parking and it wasn’t the kind of neighbourhood where you just left a car piled with possessions on the street, so I unloaded the bikes and the boards in the dead of night and we carted them on up to the fifth floor. Our suite quickly became the cluttered dosshouse we were used to.
We were down in Café Angola early next morning. We ate custard pastries, drank exotic juices and got very engrossed in a snooker match that was playing on a tv suspended over the bar. At some point Menna and I remembered that it was our wedding anniversary and we had a quick peck over the table while the kids made grossed-out faces. She admired the croissant crumbs in my beard; I thought the guava on her breath smelled like the tropics. A man called Wilson eventually won a dramatic last frame and took the semi-final.
Over the next two weeks our intention was to explore the area between Peniche and Ericeira, starting North and working our way down. Our first stop was Baleal, three hours from Lisbon, on the (toll-free) scenic route, where we would camp for the weekend.
Urban Art Camping was an indulgence for the boys. The website had various soft focus pictures of graffitied walls and skate ramps, laughter around communal barbecues, brightly coloured surfboards tossed artfully upon the grass. We had booked a ‘chalet’ (trailer) for the weekend and looked forward to immersing ourselves into the party scene.
I had to raise a admiring hat to the Urban Art marketing department when we arrived, for those careful blurred shots had made so much of what there was little, and made so little of what there was most: hard earth and grit, a veil of dust hanging in the heat.
There were some murals there it was true, and a skate ramp too, in an area of sandy wasteland among abandoned breeze blocks and plastic pipes that coiled like snakes in the silt. There were also two concrete barbecue grills as promised. They were hidden on a little walkway between the toilet block and a chainlink fence that looked out onto a desolate vista of weeds and rusting agricultural machinery.
The website certainly hadn’t mentioned that the site was right next to one of the most decrepit, rundown chicken farms that can ever have flown under the animal welfare regulation radar. The tang of ammonia and chicken shit hit hard when the wind turned westerly, cries of tortured poultry haunted our nights.
We were one of approximately five occupied berths in the campsite, so the bonfire surf vibe was muted. It became quickly clear though that the real residents here were of a different species entirely, and they were having quite the party. Flies everywhere! They came coursing into our trailer if we left the door open. They danced over my face when I tried to siesta. Matilda had twelve of them in the shower with her. Their buzz bored deep into the cranium.
There is a family philosophy that we don’t kill any creatures unless they are mosquitos. No stamping on spiders or harpooning manatees for the Nicholls. Live and let live. I have to explain to the kids that there is however going to be an exemption on flies.
“But Dad, why? They’re not actually hurting us.” Asks Arthur, rightly.“Is it ok to kill something that just annoys you? Can I kill Matilda then?” There is some difficult semantic legwork to do to build a moral case for this one.
“They carry diseases and they are super annoying. It’s just better for the world if we reduce the fly population”
Arthur proves coherently and at some length that if you were to eradicate the fly population then, in a complicated web of cause and effect, there would be at least sixteen other species that would become extinct including, somehow, the Golden Eagle.
I am reduced to: “But they eat crap and then crawl on your face. They vomit digestive juices on you and then lick it back up!” And then I am plunged into a long difficult period of self-reflection. Why can’t I argue a better case for the morality of fly swatting – or at least a more eloquent one? The fly has faster reflexes than any other living thing. They are perfectly adapted to their environment and clearly a highly successful species. They play a vital role in the decomposition of biological waste. Perhaps we should just leave them alone.
Our campsite apart, Baleal is a beautiful little village. The old town sits high on granite island and its churches and towers make a classic medieval roofline silhouetted against the afternoon shine of the westward sea. It connects to the mainland by an isthmus: a single span of tarmac that runs through a spit of beach with a unspoken ‘who dares first’ priority system. There are curved bays with fine white sand and turquoise waters on either side. This is ideal surf terrain as there are waves approaching the spit from two opposing directions, so it works on both northerly and southerly swells, and one side will pick up an offshore whatever the prevailing wind direction. We eat toasted cheese sandwiches and pickled lupini beans at a café on the cliffs, marvelling at our luck.
There is a series of beautiful beaches to the north of town with terracotta sandstone crags towering above them and this is where we spend Sunday. The waves are booming and I have one of the best ever surf sessions until my leash breaks, leaving me with a long swim back into shore. There is no harm done though and we walk the dusty road back to our campsite tired, scorched and happy. I find my spot behind the loos, fire up the barbecue and cook us up a chorizo-themed feast to finish the weekend in style. I am mellowed by surf and sun, the wastelands now stretch in front of me like a blank canvas full of promise. I superimpose all sorts of heroic and unlikely visions of the future there.
The mood evaporates later though when we return to our cabin and are greeted by a terrifying sight. We have left the door open and the flies have invaded. The ceiling is dark with them, so are the walls. They are flying lazy loops in the kitchen like they own the place. There are too many to count, though Arthur tries.
We have a family meeting. While it is true that we are a peaceful lot who seek no quarrel, tonight the fight has been brought to us. The sovereignty of our very trailer has been attacked and we must respond. We arm ourselves grimly with towels, magazines and Grandma’s fly swat, and we stride forth with murder in our hearts.
I have only fragmented memories of that night. A strange dark ballet. Metallic swirls in the dusk. Menna howling and swinging wildly. Arthur grinning diabolically as he leapt from chairs, his face streaked with some dark residue. Fluorescent lights flicker like strobes. The air-con unit groans. Dismembered limbs and wings; dark streaks down the wall; piles of small furry bodies amassed upon the floor. Matilda is a blur, twirling and stamping, teeth gritted, letting out animalistic cries. But still they pour in. They are in the plug sockets! Under the fridge! Hiding in the toaster! Sweat, blood, buzzing, shrieks. We killed them in their hundreds. Stamped on their mute bodies. Plucked off their wings. Did we…eat them?
We drive out of Urban Art Camping at nine the next morning still twitchy and agitated, the bloodlust barely subsided. We leave the crime scene behind us and flee south.
Somewhere in the car there is a buzzing sound.