The short but eventful life of a white tee-shirt

The white tee-shirt was a simple, cheap garment: fairly loose-fitting, V-necked, and probably made of a cotton/polyester mix. It came into my life because I am an idiot, and left it because I am anal. It was almost entirely blameless, and I repaid it with sweat, splashed alcohol, and a watery death.

I spent Christmas in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro with an American friend who lives there, before coming back to Picinguaba for the New Year revelries. It is traditional to wear white for the New Year celebrations in Brazil, and I generally bring only pale-coloured shirts anyway, because the sun here in summer is so intense that I need maximum reflection, and minimum sweat-patch visibility; in order to ensure I was well-prepared for the night I washed all my white clothes at Andrew’s house in Niterói. Arriving at Picinguaba, 325km from Niterói, a couple of days before New Year I opened my luggage to find, in the place of all my white shirts, nothing but a sudden, crystal-clear, and uselessly late mental image of them drying on a clothes-line in Andrew’s yard.

The wearing of white is to placate the sea goddess and, therefore, in order to avoid the risk of an Odyssean return journey to the UK in February—not to mention looking like a foreign dick—there was nothing for it but to buy a new shirt. So the day before New Year’s Eve, I got on a horrendously packed bus for an almost two-hour trip along a packed highway (everyone goes to the beach for New Year) to Ubatuba, where I bought the shirt, along with a couple of its cousins. A friend from Picinguaba was making the same trip—to buy her daughter a bicycle—and so I gratefully took the opportunity to generously offer to get us a taxi back to save Jumara the horror of trying to take a large box on the heaving, stifling bus.

New Year’s Eve itself passed off magnificently, as it always does here. Dancing on a beach until four in the morning is incalculably preferable to standing shivering round braziers, however cosy-looking, in a pub garden. At midnight, many bottles of bubbly were shaken up and popped open to spray the surrounding dancers. Usually I would object to this wanton waste of alcohol, but this is Brazil, where—though the home of many pleasant beers and uncountable fine cachaças—they have yet to master the art of making even barely palatable wine; whereas a cool drenching on a hot summer’s night was wholly welcome. But my poor new shirt’s first visit to the world was in order to be soaked first with dancy sweat and then with cheap Lambrusco.

To relate its second, fatal visit to the world, I need to rewind a little to the daytime of the 31st. After many years of visiting Picinguaba, which lies on a large, calm natural harbour and where one can thus do a variety of watersport type activities, I decided the time had come for me to attempt one. I’ve been fairly cautious about this, because I’m not a strong swimmer, and there is, of course, the risk of a sudden event causing a cataplectic collapse. But I decided to pay the R$80 to have a hour’s lesson in stand-up boarding—a more sedate, gentler cousin of surfing performed standing up (duh) on an oversized surfboard, guiding yourself with a long paddle.

Let me stress that I was not optimistic. There are naturally sporty people in the world, who can pick up any new physical skill with ease, and I am not one of them. True, I played rugby for most of my secondary school, but my involvement in that largely started because, due to the precocious maturation previously mentioned, I was so much larger than my compatriots in the early years that it was simply a matter of picking up the ball and wandering over to the other side of the pitch. I must have developed some ability, because I remained in the squad as my peers caught up with (and, annoyingly, largely overtook) me in size. But other than that, I have no sporting trophies to exhibit. I played squash for a number of years with a pleasure and an enthusiasm in almost exactly inverse proportion to my ability to actually hit the ball, and I suppose I can hold my own fairly well on a pool table.

Astonishingly, then, I turned out to be really surprisingly good at stand-up. So much so that, after only about ten minutes of tuition, Fausto said to me that I had it sorted, there was nothing more to learn, he’d only charge me for the rent of the board not the lesson, and off I was to go. I was to keep fairly close to the shore, and he’d keep an eye on me from there. I came in, after a thoroughly enjoyable hour’s boarding, with not a wet hair on my head. “Nem caiu?”—you didn’t fall off? Nenhuma vez, my friends, nenhuma vez. Jumara subsequently told me that she’d talked to Fausto and he admitted to her that I’d been so obviously in control he forgot to keep an eye out for me, and was very relieved when he saw me coming back in from praia da fazenda. Quite the natural, it would seem. My laughably underlong legs have cropped up regularly on this blog, and this time I think they have done me a favour, as a lot of the technique lies in being able to stabilize the board with your legs whilst separating out the paddling movement from the shoulders and arms.

So the day after New Year’s Day, when the pain had abated, I decided to have another go, and the white tee-shirt came with me. There was a good reason for this—Brazil is currently in a severe drought, and Picinguaba’s water supply is entirely from a system of water towers in the surrounding hills, which are almost empty. Serious economy of water is required, and washing clothes is at a premium (indeed, this is why the original washing was done in Niterói, rather than here). As the shirt was only taken to put on if I was out longer than my sun-block would handle, it made sense to use the New Year’s shirt—now stinking of dried sweat and booze, and so unwearable at any other time. Out I went for stand-up session the second, my white tee-shirt tucked into the waistband of my shorts. And passed me by, not ten minutes into my boarding, a motorboat going far too fast for the harbour, a rippling wake expanding out in nested V-shapes behind it.

You may have come to the conclusion from reading this blog that I am a somewhat chaotic individual, and this is a largely reasonable supposition. But somewhere in me, rarely disturbed, lies a secret core of anality. It’s why I’m a good editor, but its major manifestation lies not in lexical neatness, but in an obsessive worship of symmetry. I have to chew clementine pieces exactly the same number of times on each side of my mouth. Should my loyalty card in a Caffè Nero have a misplaced stamp on the first row of it, heaven help the barista who does not misplace the equivalent stamp in the other direction on the final row (rotational trumps reflective, of course). My HTML is always XHTML.

And so it was that, rather than turning the board so that its prow was perpendicular to the approaching wake, I turned it broadside, creating a pleasant symmetry between the oncoming parallel waves and the side of my board. And the price for this symmetry was to be pitched unceremoniously into the ocean. (By serendipity, my New Year’s reading was Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastically bleak Galápagos, the basic premise of which is that evolution gave us big, big brains, and yet the things those big, big brains cause us to do are precisely those that are likely to bring individuals and the species to an abrupt termination. This is exactly the kind of thing he was talking about.) I spluttered to the surface, suddenly reminded of quite how salty seawater is, and followed that part of the lesson that I had yet to implement: how to recover yourself when you fall off.

Paddle. Still in hand. Good, make sure it stays there. Board. Get to, and grab as quickly as possible. Done. Right, now hang off the board for five minutes spitting out brine and note to yourself that, if you’re going to take this up, you really need to take some swimming lessons to improve your feeble dogpaddle. Haul yourself back on, stand up again, and you’re there, back in control, pretending nothing had happened.

And then look down, and see a white billowing shape gently floating downwards as the poor, abused tee-shirt that you had tucked into your shorts, and which had disconnected itself in your unseemly splashing, descends to the deeps; there to lie until it unravels and rots, pondering upon what it has done to deserve such mistreatment: to be soaked with sweat, then alcohol, and then to be cast aside in a moment of panic to sleep with the fishes and dream of the days when it hung, unmolested, uncreased, and unstained, upon a hanger in a shop in Ubatuba.

  1. Almost entirely because, as a mix of fibres, it had already condemned me to eternal perdition.