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Not so plain sailing

not so plain sailing

I was mightily relieved to see Andrew Marr looking and sounding so fit last weekend following the stroke that had knocked him out of action just after Christmas. Strokes run in my family like fault lines through San Francisco, so I’m always on alert to see how other people cope with them.

We tend to associate strokes with the elderly, but in my family we peak early – three of my grandparents died prematurely from either a stroke or heart disease and the fourth was never well, so you can see how it might prey on my mind.

So that was why I watched the interview with Andrew Marr this weekend when he warned against sudden bursts of exercise with particular interest, and followed it with a quick surf round the British Stroke Association’s website to see what I can do to minimise the risk to me and the rest of the family. Not sure whether I will be downing a glass of beetroot juice a day to reduce my blood pressure, but, for reasons that will become clear, I was an early convert to a Mediterranean diet, siestas and the avoidance of sudden bursts of strenuous exercise.

My Dad suffered a stroke in his early 40s that sounds remarkably similar to the one suffered by Andrew Marr and he was back on his feet with no noticeable long-term effects within a couple of months and went on to live in happy and healthy hypochondria until he was almost 80.

Like Andrew Marr’s stroke, it was brought on by a sudden burst of overexertion. But unlike Andrew – whose stroke was brought on by going overboard on a virtual boat (he blames an excessive session on the rowing machine) – my Dad’s was brought on by going overboard (almost literally) on a real one.

As I’ve mentioned before, my parents had a footloose and fancy-free spell living on a boat when my sister and I were kids, and it was during that time that Dad keeled over. We were moored in a fishing village in a tiny island off Sicily and there was, as they say, a storm brewing. Dad was anxious to move the boat to a safer mooring and rushed up on deck straight after lunch to winch up the anchor. I can see him now, frantically pulling the winch back and forth while Mum pleaded with him to wait until his lunch had gone down. (They were early adopters of the siesta, Mum and Dad).

I can’t remember what happened next but I do remember Dad collapsing downstairs and ending up lying down inside the boat, completely unable to move his left side. By now the weather situation was getting critical and we knew that if we didn’t move the boat back to the mainland it would be smashed against the harbour wall and we would be homeless. This is the bit where it turns into a nautical spaghetti western…

The only other boats in the harbour were big, sturdy Sicilian fishing boats, one of which was our neighbour. My Mum went across and explained (fortunately in Italian) our predicament. The capitano, Giuseppe, came aboard and could see that my mum was about as capable of taking the boat on an overnight crossing back to mainland Sicily as I am now of flying to New York solo. Never fear, signora, he said, I shall take your boat, and my crew will take mine.

And that’s exactly what happened. I can still see Giuseppe now, chewing on a cigar, a black fisherman’s cap on his head, standing at the wheel of our flimsy wooden boat while his huge fishing boat sailed alongside. If it were turned into a movie, he would be played by Tom Conti.

In the morning we woke up moored alongside his boat in the safer waters of Trapani. And for what seemed like months, but can only have been a few days while the weather calmed down, his crew cooked their lunch on deck every day and shared it with us. They also invited my sister and I aboard to play cards and eat pasta. Which is how I learned to twirl pasta like a pro and play rummy.

Dad made a full recovery and the following summer, and every summer until we came back to the UK, we returned to Marettimo to see Giuseppe and his family (they had two kids a little older than us). Giuseppe died a few years before my parents, but his son, Joe, now an officer in the Sicilian police, still calls me every few months, just, you know, to see if I need anything taken care of…

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