Kissing the Big Toe
Landing is suddenly upon us and this time we are asked to fasten our seat belts. It’s about 2 a.m. 4 January, South American dating. Fay and Sue are bravely waiting for us out on the tarmac and we quickly load our bags into the transit van they have brought to fetch us. First we drop Robert off at the Hotel Condor, he and I agree to meet tomorrow and then they take me to the original hotel I’d booked into at the beginning, Hotel Jose Noguiera. I say my goodbyes to Ian and Lorna who are staying separately at Hotel Cabo de Hornos and we promise we will keep in touch. It’s now around 3.30 a.m. and at my hotel I quickly undress, fall into my roomy and very comfortable bed and snuggle between delicious, clean, white sheets. What absolute luxury!
I’m asleep in a moment and don’t wake until 10 a.m. In his hotel I guess Ian will still be sleeping as he doesn’t have to leave today as I do. I slowly shave, with gorgeous, instant hot water and shower for at least 20 minutes. I find the cleanest of my dirty clothes to wear and try to repack despite the fact that my white bag has totally collapsed. Somehow I cram everything into my hand luggage and the remaining large case although one wheel has broken off and one lock won’t shut. Robert turns up to have lunch with me and I leave my baggage in the lobby as I’ll have to take off for the airport immediately afterwards. We ask the reception manager for restaurant suggestions but fortunately he is interrupted by another guest, Cecilia
Fletcher, a beautiful Chilean woman living in New York, who recommends Solito’s Bar on Calle O’Higgins. The Irish have the ability to get everywhere! Bernardo O’Higgins is honoured throughout Chile as someone who has contributed extensively to Chilean interests and many streets and places are named after him. There is even a special Order of Bernardo O’Higgins which is awarded to distinguished international personalities. Following the directions across town is like walking through a crazy nightmare. I’d forgotten how strong the winds were and that this is certainly the windiest city in the world. I am nearly blown over several times and sometimes I have to run to stay upright. The winds cut into us so sharply that it is incredibly painful. Everywhere you look people are struggling to move slowly forward. One lady is using sticks to help her walk and her husband is trying and only just succeeding in keeping her from falling over. You don’t seem to see any old people in Punta Arenas as there is probably no way they would survive.
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Eventually we make it into Solito’s. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but there is no way we are going to move from here without some food to give us strength to fight through the winds again. The waiters are courteous and old-worldly, dressed in dinner jackets and wearing black bow ties. Robert orders several gin and tonics but I stick to red wine although he joins me in helping to drink the whole bottle. We have an excellent meal, huge steaks, plenty of delicious fries and in the middle of the meal the lights suddenly go out due to the sheer force of the wind; it obviously happens here often. They bring us candles although the wind still reaches through and starts them spluttering. I’m worried the darting flames will catch the curtains that are also blowing loosely around us. We talk about children, he has one and I have three, and about the problems that so many young people around the world face without adequate facilities, education or resources. We both share a deep interest in trying to help children have better lives.
Somehow this leads me on to some stories told to me by Val Doonican, the British ballad singer. He told me these stories when we were both working in the BBC and he had one of the most successful weekly TV shows. Val had an alcoholic father and was part of a large, very poor Irish family. As a young child he had no shoes and eventually it came to his turn to be bought a pair. His mother, who had to control the family monies, gave an amount to his father and told him to take Val to the shoe shop in the High Street. His father took him to the shop and told the assistant to give him a pair of boots, one size larger than he needed, as was the custom in those hard times. He then told Val not to move and to wait there until he returned. He didn’t return and eventually, when they were closing the shoe shop, Val was forced to leave. As he did, so he saw his father leaving the pub opposite, staggering blind drunk across the road without looking, then immediately being hit by a speeding car. There was blood everywhere and the young Val ran home as fast as he could and told his mother, ‘I’ve just seen Dad being killed by a car. She didn’t respond in any way or do anything but made him sit down and eat his dinner. Val did as he was told while his mother continued with her ironing. Some hours later his father appeared, covered in blood, in a horrific condition. His mother didn’t say a word but just put his dinner in front of him and he sat down to eat it. That was the very tough upbringing that in those days so many impoverished Irish families took for granted. These are stories that shouldn’t be forgotten.
I follow that very sad story of his early family life by telling an even more painful one occurring just after Val had married, and he and his wife had just had a baby girl. He was still trying to achieve success as a singer and sang at any club in order to earn a small fee. Val was about to go out for a gig and, as always, went upstairs to kiss his daughter goodnight. To his absolute horror he discovered she had somehow suffocated in her cot and died. He just didn’t know what to do but finally telephoned their doctor from the upstairs phone to come over immediately. His wife kept calling up to him to hurry or he’d be late and he kept calling out excuses saying he’d be down shortly. When the doctor arrived, together they told his wife the tragic news and, completely devastated, she collapsed with shock. Then, Val says to his shame and he thinks about it always, he left the doctor with his wife and went out to the club to continue to sing about romance and love, as they so desperately needed the money he earned there. I explain to Robert that those stories have always had a profound and lasting effect on me and have made me realise how tragedy can strike at any time to anyone. It’s a torment that we all can suffer whatever luck and opportunities might come our way. Robert is obviously very moved. It makes him realise more than ever how important it is to understand the sufferings of others and to help children throughout the world. The lights go out twice more during the meal and each time the shadows caused by the flickering candlelight somehow illustrate the depth of the experiences we have both known and the lessons we all need to learn.
After dinner Robert takes me to Plaza de Armas, although generally known as Magellan’s Square, where he shows me the impressive, huge, naked statue of Magellan sitting crosslegged on a stone plinth under the words, ‘Tierra Del Fuego’. His naked right foot juts out and Robert tells me the legend that if anyone wants to come back safely from their journeys then he or she should kiss the big toe. Robert certainly did before his own epic struggle to the Pole. I make up for my lack of kissing it before I had set out, by kissing it several times, and for good measure all his other toes too. Just in case it was all a dream. We hug and take our leave of each other with tremendous affection; it’s part of the icing on the Antarctic cake, to have spent time in Punta Arenas and also there in the white wilderness with Robert Swan, polar explorer extraordinaire.