Inflection point

It was an eighties telly in a seventies wooden box – complete with shutters you could draw across the screen, like music hall curtains closing on Spandau Ballet. A boxy remote the size of Dagenham was optimistically labelled with the full range of digits, only three of which had purpose. The remote did have a red button: for turning off the TV. I pressed, and held, and a red light on the remote blinked furiously until an overlong timer fired and the TV switched off. Not standby: off. The power button on the TV popped out with an alarming clunk. The not-flat, not-square tube crackled with static.

“Lift.” Feet up for Mum’s hoover, a frantic round of pre-holiday housework.

I’d been parked in front of the TV for a couple of hours watching the special coverage of Columbia’s maiden flight, Live by Satellite from Cape Canaveral. But Young and Crippen wouldn’t be flying that day: the pocket-protected NASA techs were taking no chances. Even with the world watching, another few days of tests wouldn’t matter. The shuttle programme was several years late already.

By the time Columbia arced into the Florida sky, two days later, we were settled in to our cottage at the Coral Reef Club in Barbados. Fancy. Launch was at 7am EST, one hour behind us, and since that time on a Sunday was in those days purely a hypothetical concept I didn’t watch it live. I saw later replays on a snowy hotel portable, Barbados TV showing a feed from a US network. It was 12 April 1981, twenty years to the day from Gagarin’s flight, and three days before my twelfth birthday.

Later, I’m asked: “Do you want to go waterskiing?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t want to.” I’d been skiing on previous holidays and enjoyed it. Grab the handle, crouch in the water, let the skis pull you upright as the motor roars, lean back, bend the knees, relax the shoulders, smile for the instamatics. Push down a little with either foot to drift to one side, even over the wake into choppier waters. Keep going until your arms fall off.

This time, though, I didn’t want to ski. But I did want to. I just didn’t want to belly-flop forward when the speedboat surged, or to catch an edge while waving to the beach, or to lose my balance venturing out of the wake. I didn’t want to fail. Failure was not an option, I’d decided.

I watched from the boat and from the beach. “Your turn next Dave?” No. My bare heels dug deep in smooth Caribbean sand. I retreated into my head: to science fiction, or the notebook in which I scribbled snippets of rubbish eighties code.

But even though puberty was beginning to ensnare me, dragging me to surly adolescence from the cosy certainties of childhood, I was no vampiric, coal-impersonating minigoth. I sizzled gently in the April sun, and swam where the spiky, poisonous sea urchins had been cleared. I explored the coast a little with my brother and his friend Robert, here with his parents in a multi-family extravaganza. We played shuffleboard – essentially, man-sized shove ha’penny.

My family tried again to persuade me to go waterskiing. Again I refused. “I just don’t want to.” It had become a point of principle: the more they went on about it, the more I was determined not to do it, even if I secretly wanted to. I just didn’t want to enough.

At some point during the holiday, I don’t remember how or when, I became friends with a girl called Carrie. Or Kerry. Or something like that. She was about my age, maybe a year older, on holiday from Florida with her family. We, like, totally hung out.

By her last evening on the island, the now-twelve-year-old grown-up me was beginning to wonder whether this qualified as a bona fide holiday romance. Perhaps it was, I thought, but as far as romance was concerned I was still skiing resolutely within the wake. After dinner, just the two of us, on a beach cool and quiet bar the lazy Caribbean rhythm of gentle waves and broadcasting crickets, we lay on sun loungers under moonlight and talked about everything – nearly everything. It was getting late.

“So… can you stay out a bit longer?” she asked. It seemed an Important Question.

“Um…” A little downward pressure on one ski and I’d start to drift to the wake. Push left, go right. That’s all I’d need to do. Simple, easy. “Er, I’ll need to go and check.”

I caught an edge.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Mum back at the cottage. “Time to stay in now.”

I somersaulted into the sea, skis cartwheeling off, handle skipping away in pursuit of the boat.

I don’t think I saw Carrie again. Or Kerry. Whatever.

On our last full day in Barbados, the constant nagging finally broke me. That’s not strictly true. “I tell you what,” said Robert’s dad, “I’ll give you twenty dollars if you waterski.”

There’s a photo somewhere of my brother, me and Robert, skiing three abreast. Easy money. I fell over while peeling off to ski unpowered to the shore, but that’s life, I guess. I lost no time in collecting the cash.

That holiday was memorable for many reasons: for beginnings and endings, for decision and indecision. For an uncertain glimpse into a future not to be, from a present clinging to the past. And for one other thing.

On my twelfth birthday that Wednesday, I had a few presents to open. One was small, no bigger than a packet of cigarettes. It was a silver box with an LCD display, a volume wheel tucked along the short side, and a single small button on top. When you pressed the button the box spoke the time. “It’s nine forty-three AM.” And there was a stopwatch. “One minute, ten seconds elapsed.” And an alarm. “Attention please. It’s ten fifteen AM. Please hurry” – followed by a few bars of music. It seemed magical, impossibly small.

I still have it. It’s by my bed, as it has been for thirty years, now grumpily sharing space with my iPhone. It’s seen me through school, college and nearly two decades of work. I never sleep late enough for it to wake me these days; it’s a backup, chiming and talking at 8am, 8.05am, and 8.10am, reliably, reassuringly. Eighties technology in a tens world.

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