Schoolboy high jinks

13th July 2007 at 01:00
In the summer of 1974, aged 14, I took my first step on foreign soil. For a day or so, I had been on board the cruise ship Uganda, but it wasn't the same thing. Marshalling us into orderly groups at the quayside were Miss Smith, the science teacher, her sister Miss Smith, the primary teacher, and Mr Donnelly, who might have been a modern linguist.

By my side were my friends Minto and Andy. Minto had shouted "Buenos dias, ya bastard!" while waving cheerily at a Spanish fishing boat and Andy's Space Hopper had exploded during deck games.

Standing sheepishly to one side was Harold With The Comedy Surname, who caused panic by treating the boat like the school bus, stepping off and going walkabout as soon as it docked.

We were in Santander. There was a trip to an old village. Honey-coloured stone. Dusty roads. Donkeys. A nice old lady selling milk and cake. Later in the day, we shopped in the town. I gave Miss Smith money to buy a doll for my sister, because I was too embarrassed to do it and she was too nice to tell me where to get off.

Our next port of call was Lisbon. I got a severe dose of the runs. The water, as we sailed into the harbour, was an unpleasant straw colour. I felt at least partly responsible.

We took the train to Estoril. Two boys tried to buy a Carlsberg and had to walk back to the boat. There was a trip to a monastery and a fabulous tour of the city by night. People tried to light up Lisbon with a Magicube flash camera, but the way to do it was with a long exposure using the "b" setting on my Cosmic Symbol. The statue of Christ the King looked over us benevolently.

Some fuel crisis meant that the next stop would be Guernsey rather than La Rochelle. I wasn't chuffed. Guernsey was not a real foreign country. I did manage to get a fantastic present for my dad, though a storage box for the rare 2-inch square slides he took with his twin-lens reflex camera.

Our last stop was Amsterdam. Mr Donnelly told us not to look in the windows of certain shops. All the boys looked in the windows. Andy, cultured beyond his years, persuaded Minto and me to come with him to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt's The Night Watch. We knew afterwards we had been somewhere special.

There was an air of sadness as Amsterdam receded from view. My first foreign adventure was over. I tried not to think about the strange feeling I'd had on the coach journey to the ship in Scotland; that part of me wouldn't mind if the bus broke down and we missed the boat.

Back in Scotland, the ground moved with a gentle swell and for a time afterwards, in bed at night, I was rocked to sleep by the memory of that school cruise.

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