Happy camper

The column He who has a cheap bush shirt, a dozen tins of bug spray, and an amnesiac mother-in-law is truly rich, discovers Howard Jacobson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Camping in the bush with a mother-in-law who has lost her memory has more going for it than you'd think.

Because she can't remember where we've been or where we're going, she is subject neither to disappointment nor impatience. She lies uncomplaining on the bank of a creek bed in her spectacles, flat out under a straw hat, one knee up, careless of the bull-ants, appearing to be reading the sun through the morning newspaper, while we dig the camper- van out of the sand; or reposes compliant as a brass rubbing on her palette of oblivion in the van itself, reading the same paperback novel over and over again. Such provisions does Nature make for the needy. She is a voracious reader, my mother-in-law. Loves to have a couple of books going at any one time and doesn't skip a single sentence in the newspaper. But where do you get a newspaper when you're camping in the bush? No matter. Today is Saturday and she is reading Tuesday's newspaper for the fifth time, engrossed, for it is all as new to her as the first day of creation.

Ditto The Gift by Kirk Douglas. "Is it well-written?" I ask her, seeing her starting at page one again.

"No," she laughs, "I wouldn't say so, but I want to know what happens."

This is having an unexpectedly calming effect on me. I am suddenly in no hurry to be up and gone. My sense of time is changing. I can't remember what my watch looks like. I am unaware of what day, or month, or year it is. And I am feeling less angry at having to be out in the bush at all.

I don't come from camping stock. My mother owned a folding metal picnic table which we may have taken out once or twice to Heaton Park or Boggart Hole Clough - but that was as far as camping went in our family. We didn't agree on everything but we agreed on this: if you were going to get the best out of a smoked salmon sandwich you didn't want grass in it.

And now I'm rolling in red dirt and swallowing flies, like a ta-ta lizard. And I'm kitted out for the part. I saw to that in Perth, before we left to head north. I took myself off to an army disposal shop and bought snake-proof boots, red hiking socks, a bush shirt, a dozen cans of anti-mosquito aerosol and nearly, very nearly, a leather pouch to keep a knife in. Cheap. No wonder some people get around in this gear all the year round. So cheap. Boots, socks, shirt, aerosols, all for less than I routinely shell out on a tie in New Bond Street.

It makes you wonder about your values.

Sitting in a cafe on the beach at Shark Bay, we admire a luxury yacht anchored close to the shore. Well, my wife and mother-in law do. Myself, I have no feelings about yachts whatsoever. Yachts were something else my family never did. Ten minutes rowing on the lake after we'd finished with the picnic table, that was the extent of our seafaring. After which, we'd drive home poisoned and sea-sick, vowing never again to leave the safety of our house.

I'm thinking about these good old days, lost in time, when I realise that someone is standing between us and the sun. He has his chest out, wears a gold chain around his neck, and is holding a glass of champagne. He doesn't introduce himself. He simply says, "That's my boat out there."

I know what he's come for. He's come to impress my wife and mother-in- law and steal them from me.

"What, the big one?" they both ask together.

Already it's working. Fine, fine. I'm philosophical about everything these days. So long as he understands they come as a package, that there's no having one without the other.

He's from down south, one of the Perth millionaires. Which explains his rapscallion's face. The cat that got the cream. And he's sailing round the coast in this yacht which he built himself because his wife left him. The exact phrase he uses is "ran away from me". I'm struck by that. It implies a third party. Someone poor but interesting. A novelist?

Call no man happy. Here he is with his gold chain round his neck and his thousand-foot yacht and his champagne with the sun dancing in it, and he can't keep a wife from running away from him. Whereas all I have to brag about is a cheap bush shirt and a dozen tins of aerosol, yet I'm in possession of a wife and a mother-in-law. Makes you think.

My mother-in-law glimmers at him brilliantly. She still remembers how to please a Perth millionaire. Later on, if she's still here, he says, he'll show her his yacht.

"That would be lovely," she says.

But when he's gone, she says, "I wonder who that yacht belongs to."

I sit on the beach and watch what you do when you're rich and your wife has run away. You swab your decks. Then you ferry women to your yacht in a motor launch. Then you ferry them back to the shore again. Then you speed round and round your yacht in your motor launch, alone. Great frenzied circles of territorial marking, mine mine mine mine. Then you go back aboard and start swabbing again.

Don't ask me what chance rich men have of making it into the kingdom of heaven. But here on earth I now see what lives of unremitting drudgery they live.

Keep it simple, that seems to be the answer. Buy your clobber from an Army Disposal store. Roll in the red dirt. And take it a day at a time. For soon you won't remember any of it anyway