Ian McMillan: Message from you Rudi, and memories of our night with Egil

Sorting through some old poetry books and pamphlets the other day in a vain attempt to bring some order to my bibliophiliac chaos I came across a book in German called Summe by a writer called Rudi Schillings, and I was instantly transported back to a campsite in Brittany 20 years ago, and the sound of claws on the groundsheet of a tent.

Let me explain: for a few years in the 1990s we had a family holiday on a huge campsite near a place called Guilvinec, near Quimper, in Brittany. It was, in my humble opinion, paradise; the beach was nearby, the kids could go to a club called the Hoopi Club, there was a pool and a giant chess set, and a bar that welcomed me and my son as we played Streetfighter on a primitive game machine.

And then one year there was the hedgehog and there was Rudi. The kids were all sound asleep in the tent and my wife and I were suddenly startled awake by the sound of scrabbling and scratching. In my half-asleep state it sounded like a fire-breathing dragon was trying to get in to give us some bad news. I sat up. The sound stopped. I lay back down. The sound started again. My wife nudged me and the nudge spoke volumes, and what the nudge said was “If you’re a real man you’ll get up and see what the noise is”, so reluctantly I squirmed out of the sleeping bag, to be confronted by a hedgehog the size of a hostess trolley. It looked at me. I looked at it. Something passed between us. I gestured at it to leave the tent but it didn’t speak sign language, so I had to get the brush that we swept the beach out of the tent with each evening and sweep the hedgehog out onto the path between the tents. The moon was full and I was illuminated in my shorts with my brush and the hedgehog.

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I got back into my sleeping bag and tried to nod off but the scratching began again and I knew that the hedgehog had returned so I swept it out again. It returned twice more and the last time I noticed an elderly man was watching me as dawn began to break. This was Rudi. He looked at me and said “Egil” and I said “No, hedgehog” and he said “Egil”. And our odd friendship was born across the languages because, as I learned later, Egil is German for hedgehog.

The next day Rudi invited us into his tent to drink coffee; he found out that I wrote poems and he revealed that he did too. He pointed to his smiling wife who was sitting on a canvas chair. “This afternoon I will write a poem and then I will paint my wife in the nude,” he said in lyrical English. Suddenly I felt a long way from Darfield. For the next couple of years I always sought Rudi out when we went to the campsite and we sat and talked poetry and music and art and culture. He was about the same age as my dad and I realised they would have been on opposite sides in the war but, naively perhaps, I thought they might get on if they met each other.

We’ve not been back to the campsite for 20 years but somehow I hope Rudi still goes, still writes poems, still paints his wife in the nude.

Thanks, hedgehog. I mean Egil.