THE PACKAGE HOLIDAY VIRGIN by Jill Stoking
Life at home was awful. My husband hadn’t spoken to me for thirteen years, except where life or death was at stake and sometimes not even then. Ten years before he’d returned home early from work, in obvious pain. He was an unusual shade of grey so I called the doctor, who called the ambulance and my husband, in the throws of a heart attack, spent the next few days in intensive care.
You’d have thought that the near death experience would have caused him to review his options but Plan B. was never implemented. Normal silent service was resumed.
Fast forward a decade. My son, at sixteen, was pretty much doing his own thing and my mother, for whom I’d had the job as carer, had recently gone into residential care.
I needed to escape, if only for a few days.
I’d never been on a holiday on my own, certainly never been abroad, or in an aeroplane but loved the idea of Tunisia. I got a passport, a plane ticket and a hotel booking in Sousse. I left a note on the fridge door to say ‘Away for a week – meals are in the freezer.’ Then I escaped, with my suitcase on wheels, to catch the coach to the airport.
I was high on Paroxetine, an antidepressant drug that is renowned for reducing inhibitions. This adventure would never have happened had I been clean.
It was November but the heat as I alighted on Tunisian soil hit me like blast furnace and the bombardment of men, eager to carry my suitcase to the designated coach, was overwhelming. Paroxetine got me through.
Having booked in and with key in hand, I found my room number. Really!? Mine? A double room with a balcony?
‘If it isn’t yours somebody will let you know. The key number matches the door number so just chill Jill,’ Paroxetine said.
I did. I slept for two hours, sprawled across both beds.
I was roused by the birds quarrelling over roosting pitches in the trees right outside my balcony door and I had an urgent need for food. I found the restaurant, the food looked great and I was focused on filling my plate from the buffet.
I don’t know how I got busted, or why – but coming towards me was a man, smartly attired in black and I had the feeling that I was the target.
‘You’re in the wrong place Madam.’
‘I’m hungry and this is a restaurant in the hotel I’ve booked into. Should I have reserved a table?’
‘No Madam. You don’t understand. British guests don’t use this restaurant.’
Poor man, his discomfort was now obvious. Was I about to make a scene, create an international incident or burst into tears?
‘Stay calm Jill, just ask the man where you can get a meal,’ Paroxetine advised.
I’d learnt to listen to my comforter so I smiled at the man in black and asked him to show me where my restaurant was. I wasn’t here to cause a problem, I’d simply made a mistake. His relief was palpable.
‘Please come with me Madam, I’ve been send to escort you.’
He’d been sent! Somebody had sussed that I didn’t fit here. For some reason I was unacceptable. Bemused, I followed him out of the forbidden area. Once outside of the danger zone, my escort softened disarmingly.
‘British guests have their own restaurant Madam. That’s why I was sent to guide you. It’s to do with the war, you understand? World War II? That restaurant is used by our German guests.’
‘That was before I was even born!’ I started to protest, then thought better of it.
This man, the Head Waiter as it turned out, was just trying to do his job and maintain peace and I’d made his task more difficult. I smiled and apologised for being an idiot, explaining that it was my first time in Tunisia, my first time anywhere outside of Britain.
‘I will look after you Madam.’ beamed my champion and he did.
He seated me with two ladies who were older than me but veterans of the package holiday scene. They took me under their wings and I spent much of the week in their company. My Head Waiter was attentive, over and above the call of duty. He actually asked me out for a drink and continued to be protective even after I declined his offer.
I fell in love with Tunisia. I did all the touristy things that people do when they visit for the first time.
The Arabian night, with food and drink aplenty, served by waiters who balanced stacks of plates on their heads. Beautiful girls belly danced their way through the guests, gyrating provocatively to the percussion-based live music. Arab horses, ridden by horsemen who made their steeds prance, dance and flare their nostrils.
A trip to a street market, where I got lost and kept the coach waiting for nearly an hour. The reprimand by the driver left me in tears, more out of relief than remorse. When we stopped for lunch I wasn’t allowed to leave the coach, because I couldn’t be trusted not to get lost again – he had me taped.
My personal highlight was the two day trip that culminated with a camel ride into the Sahara desert to see the sunset and experience the silence that falls over the desert as the sun disappears – magical.
Even being groped by a shopkeeper in the souk in Sousse was an experience I’ve never forgotten. My fault, we’d been warned by the tour guide not to go into the souk unaccompanied. I’d failed to understand how women, who dress in the western style, with bare limbs and on their own, can be perceived by Tunisian men. I learnt the Arabic for “No thank you.” A phrase I got to use often and with increasing confidence.