Jonny McCambridge: Here comes the summer sun...and the bare bellies
Around this time of year it is known, although by no means certain or even probable, that the sun may begin to appear in the sky.
As a general rule this meteorological happening is welcomed.
‘That’s the weather now’, grinning people will occasionally say to me in the street. I’m never sure how to respond to this bald statement, similar as to when people exclaim ‘A wet one!’ on a rainy day. I usually just nod and refer back to my standard conversational default response. ‘Aye’.
Nature begins to stir with the increase in temperature, which brings weighty responsibilities for me. I have to undertake the hazardous trek into the dusty old shed, haul out the ancient lawnmower and extension cord and then remind my wife to be careful when cutting the grass.
Winter garments are stored away. Jumpers are exchanged for light t-shirts. My wife and I will have our annual dispute on whether it is acceptable to wear knee-length socks with shorts and sandals (I say aye, she says nay).
Some men of a certain age and shape will proudly shed their layers under the sun, presumably in the assumption that the rest of us have been suffering through the winter months, yearning for the sight of their capacious sun-burnt bare bellies.
Which brings me neatly to the thrust of this week’s ramblings. Many of the people I have encountered in my life view the emergence of the sun as an opportunity to enhance the honeyed golden lustre of their tanned skin. Any reasonable amount of exposure to the solar rays leads to much-coveted bronzed limbs for most.
I am hewn from different rock. I never tan. Never.
I am fair-skinned and incredibly pale. My skin exists in a limited number of forms which usually appear in sequential stages through the summer:
1 A pinkish hue;
2 A violent lobster crimson when I get burnt;
3 Dry and peeling, as I shed my skin like a lizard;
4 Revert to stage 1 and continue.
To compound matters is the ease with which I burn. It doesn’t have to be a scorcher with me lying on a beach in the Canary Islands for my arms to fry; indeed a short burst of sun on an otherwise cloudy day in early Spring in Northern Ireland is usually enough to do the trick (which is one of the reasons why I am writing this column at the end of April, rather than in mid July).
To counter this tendency to roast, I usually keep sun cream nearby (a bottle remains in the glove compartment of my car all year round), and I apply factor 50 at the first threat of a fine day.
Sun cream represents one of the ways that the world has changed since I was a child. It didn’t seem to exist back in the 1980s, or if it did it hadn’t made it as far as north Antrim.
Usually my family would visit the beach once every summer back then and my brother and I would get burnt and then spend the rest of the holidays engaged in competition to see who could peel the largest single patch of skin off our arms or back.
It is different now with our increased knowledge of the dangers of the sun. One of the recurring stories of my parenting journey has been chasing after my son (who has inherited my pale complexion) with a bottle of lotion while he is trying to play in the swimming pool on holidays.
While sun cream is necessary, it is also unpleasant and uncomfortable. It always feels like rubbing custard onto my arms, it sticks to my clothes and attracts insects who love to feast on my pale skin.
Once, in our pre-parenting days, my wife and I decided to have a lazy holiday in the sun. The plan was to spend a whole week lying on a lounger next to a pool on a Balearic Island. However, I had not long got off the plane when I realised that I was now in an environment where the sun was stronger and less forgiving than I had ever experienced before.
I spent most of the week in a state of eternal terror that I was going to fry. I did make it to the lounger every day but fretted so much that I liberally applied layers of total sun block every 15 minutes. Usually, by lunchtime, I looked like I had been dipped in a huge tub of natural yogurt and was in danger of simply sliding off the bed.
The hotel where we were staying employed a ‘tanning advisor’ who patrolled the pool. She was an English woman with skin so leathery that her face resembled a handbag with eyes. She found me on my first day and descended with a large box full of jars and tubes.
‘What are your hopes and expectations for your tan?’ she asked.
‘Uh?’ I responded.
Then she proceeded to tell me that I had incorrectly applied my cream, that I was ‘clogging my pores’ and that this was not the correct method to achieving a successful tan.
I told her that I had no expectation of achieving a successful tan, and instead had the much more modest ambition of getting through the holiday without being burnt alive.
But she was not deterred and insisted that ‘everybody wants to go home with a tan’. In the end I spent about 100 euros on a series of lotions and creams just to get her to go away.
On the second day the same thing happened, she continued to insist on telling me where I was going wrong and I bought more product that I could not afford and would never use.
By the third day I was desperate. I was in my usual spot on the sun lounger when I saw the tanning advisor approach. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep.
Soon I could sense her presence at the end of the bed. She coughed loudly a couple of times. I didn’t move. Then I felt a hand shake my foot. I didn’t move. I became aware that she was saying something to my wife.
I heard my wife respond: ‘No, no, he’s not dead, he’s just a really heavy sleeper.’
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