After 3 months on my own, shovelling rubble and sheepshit out of the house, clearing the cobbled patio out front and putting in doors and putting clear plastic over the window openings, and bailing out the house when it rained, keeping the track usable and setting up a kitchen (consisting of an old door balanced on some stacks of bricks), it was time to drive back to England and bring Jo to her new house.
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The back room had more or less dried out, with just a damp patch in the dip in the clay floor where I had bailed out the flood. There were no valuables to speak of in the house, and besides there were now lockable doors and everything, so I was ready to go.
The ferry was due to go from Santander, clear across the other side of Spain, in a couple of day’s time. The weather turned again, and it started raining, hard, the night before I was due to head off. All the washing I had left out on the line was as wet as when it came out of the tub, so all I could do that morning was wring it out and put it in plastic bags in the back of the van and head off.
I made it about 300 meters up the track. Round the second bend there was a boulder, which had crashed down the hill - writing off half an almond tree on the way - and landed square in the middle of the driving line. It was solid granite, about 4 foot across, and it wasn’t going to move just because I put my shoulder to it and pushed as hard as I could. I went back to the house to fetch the wrecking bar and a big block of wood. Even jumping up and down on the lever just made the boulder rock from side to side a bit, taking some light grey gouges out of the brown muddy surface.
The date on the ferry ticket was still the same. There was no mobile coverage in the valley, so I’d have to walk up to the top of the hill to tell everyone that I’d miss the ferry and be stuck here until someone could come with a heavy vehicle…
In desperation I moved the car up closer to the rock, lay down in the muddy puddle that surrounded it, and pushed the boulder with my legs, braced against the car tyre. It moved a few inches! I got up, took my raincoat off so as not to cover the drivers seat with mud, inched the car forward, and after a few more heaves the thing finally turned over properly, and I was filthy but free.
The drive up through Castilla La Mancha took most of the day, through a desolate, hypnotically boring landscape – olive, vine, vine, vine, olive, vine, vine, vine, with no signs of life anywhere. About dusk I got to the outskirts of Madrid, and the crucial junction where I had to look for signs to Burgos. There were no place names mentioned, just road numbers, using Roman numerals.
As darkness fell I realised that I must have gone wrong. Taking a turning to go back the way I came just made things worse, and pretty soon I was utterly lost. The only thing was to find my way into the city by whatever byway was signposted. A quarter of an hour later I somehow found myself in an industrial estate, looking at a party going on round a stack of burning palettes, people drinking, dancing, shooting up…
Through the suburbs I went, looking for major roads, until somehow I was right in the middle of the old town, still as lost as ever in a tangle of one way streets, watching a stylishly dressed crowd walk past posh shops. It made a contrast to my recent life, so I just enjoyed the moment, happy that there was no passenger with me to get stressed. I followed a cab to find a way out of the one way system, which took me to the Puerta del Sol – the very centre of the capital – where all roads meet, and I was able to get on my way again.
After a night in a motel just north of the capital, during which no amount of cleaning seemed to get rid of all the mud, I went through the even bleaker emptiness of Castilla la Vieja, and over the intensely green mountains of the north, which looked like Wales stretched out twice or three times as high, stank of cowshit from top to bottom, and had palm trees on the other side by the sea.
I got the ferry to Portsmouth. Everyone drove off except for those of us with vans and the man in the red Ferrari. Customs thought they wanted a little chat. After asking a few questions they got a dog to check my things out. It took one sniff at a bag of washing and jumped back out again as quickly as it decently could. The customs agents didn’t fancy it much either. Before long I was on my way, being confused by English roundabouts – aren’t you meant to go round them clockwise or something?
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Losing Christina as a client could have been a financial disaster for us, but it happened that after 18 months her garden was almost as she wished it. I had just started going there only once a week, rather than 3 or 4 times, when she was carried away.
I’ve taken up a friend’s offer to help him restore a house in the next village, mixing cement, carrying stuff, a bit of bricklaying and rendering. It makes a change. However, there is no water on site today, as the result of a slight incident with an electric breaker drill and a surprisingly weak water pipe.
So I had to go down the hill to the top of Little Spring Street, where ceramic tiles stuck to the side wall of someone’s garden as a renovation in 1927 - so the tiles themselves say - surround a fat brass pipe, and water falls heavily onto a stone tank. There is a little hollow where water has hit marble for - how long? - 80 years at the very least. A fat stream overshoots it, showing that at last the drought really is over. It’s drizzling. There is moss growing in all the gaps between stones.
Back up the street I go, a bucket in each hand, as so many people have done before. The cobbled surface is rough enough to give good traction on the steep bit.
Karina, the owner, has arrived to see how things are going. We talk of houses and building for a few minutes, until I see the previous owner, Janet, in the doorway. The two have arranged to go for a coffee. Janet and I used to be neighbours when we lived in the flat, so we said hello too.
- Aren’t you gardening any more? - she asked.
- I was at Christina’s, just doing this for now.
- Oh, that was awful. I was in France when it happened, but the mayor phoned to tell me.
Janet is the arts and culture deputy in Aracena council, and widow of the man who gave us a really good municipal band. She went on:
- In some ways it’s Faustino I feel sorriest for. His wife worked for me, you know. I don’t know what has become of either of them. He was absolutely in bits. I think they might have gone back to Bolivia.
- He was right there when it happened, wasn’t he?
- He had hold of Christina’s hand when she was in the water, but he couldn‘t pull her out. Eventually her hand slipped from his.
* * *
A minute later and they are both gone. I go back to work.
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Tom and I went to the circus in the fairground. They had been hard at work putting billboards up on every corner for a couple of days, and driving round blaring out something extremely distorted, so that all the kids would see the llama standing on the trailer they were towing.
The place was packed. We arrived 5 minutes after the show was supposed to start, to see a long queue and no box office action. Well, what can you expect of a Portugese circus - in Spain? I chatted with a friend who happened to be next in line.
Of course the conversation came round to the flash flood at Christina’s. After asking after Visi, who I had seen more recently, she told me a relative of hers was in the search and rescue team.
- Everyone was amazed at the height of the water. Apparently it came within a meter and a half of overtopping the bridge.
The new bridge must be about twenty meters high. I was confused
- What, the Roman bridge?
- Oh, to say nothing of that, it was completely inundated. No, the new bridge.
- But Visi talked of a wall of water a meter high.
- Well it must have got a lot higher behind the first wave. Where the car came to rest was six meters above the normal water level, yet they couldn’t find it for several hours, until the water went down enough for the roof to be visible. It’s a miracle he survived.
- He clung to a tree branch, didn’t he?
- Yes, I think it was about two hours before the water went down enough for him to get to land.
- Is there any news of Reyes?
- No, they searched as far as the resevoir. She must have been deeply buried in silt.
And so we reached the front of the queue.
It turned out to be a three person show. The Ringmaster led off with a gaggle of geese, a couple of ponies and a very bored llama, all of which were made to run round the ring and jump over hurdles. Nobody was very impressed, but these were trad circus folk, so the animals had to have their turn.
He and his very pregnant wife did some illusionist’s tricks with mirrors, threw knives and axes at each other - always missing, but causing a tense hush in the crowd as they flashed past her belly - and clowned around at the end. The other performer was a pretty decent acrobat and fire breather.
Finally, the clown sat down in front of a big empty frame surrounded with bare bulbs and took off his makeup and hat as if before a mirror, gradually dissolving the suspension of disbelief.
Back outside in the real world there was little to distract me on the walk home.
Global warming killed Christina and Reyes. It sounds perhaps a little unbelievable when stated so baldly, but it isn’t so hard to fill in the gaps. The recent drought killed thousands of ancient oaks. Fires, especially during the extreme heat wave a couple of years back, left many hillsides bare. Treetrunks and stones fell down into gullies and formed dozens of temporary dams, which all burst almost simultaneously during the storm.
A day of tears
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My worst fears were realised as the front gate came in sight round the bend. There were half a dozen police and rescue vehicles there, and as many by the far end of the bridge half a mile away. Just after I parked and got out to speak to the two Guardia Civiles on the gate, a group of people came into view walking slowly up the track that led to the river downstream under the bridge. Their slumped shoulders said it all.
- Hello. I heard something from neighbours in town, and I wanted to know what’s happened.
- Who are you?
- I’m her gardener. In fact, I knew her as a friend.
Cursing myself for using the past tense.
One of them moves his head, with a look of resigned pity.
- The family is over there.
Ahead by the barn is a big white tent with windows. Green uniformed rescue workers are standing by the door. To the right the search party has come to a halt at the foot of the steep hill that leads to the house. One of them greets me with an embrace.
- Do you know what happened?
One of the bereaved, Visi, is there. He turns away from a conversation he had been having, and looked away down the track he had driven down that morning, horrified at having to hear the bare facts related again.
* * *
The thunder had woken us all up early that Monday morning. The rain came pouring through the roof, filling all the buckets and basins in the attic, and even dripped down into the kitchen. I drove the kids to school - normally we walk - but despite all our umbrellas, raincoats and wellies we were soaked instantly as soon as we ran for the school gate. The storm drains were overflowing or clogged with builder’s sand, so the water ran at us three or four inches deep as we went up the slope to the school. One little one was nearly knocked down by the force of the water.
Going to work at Lothar and Lynda’s garden was plainly out of the question, so I busied myself rearranging and emptying the drip-catchers upstairs, and moving boxes that were in places that had always previously been dry. Jo went to the shops during a lull, and came back with news.
- Someone told me that Christina’s has been washed away.
No surprise there. I have written before of the flat field by the river on her property. Doubtless it was under several feet of water by now.
The rain stopped gradually. I started cooking lunch. Jo went to get the boys. When she got in the door, she said hello in an oddly formal way.
- I’m afraid I have some bad news love. Christina and Reyes were in a car accident this morning. The car was went off the road or something and both of them are missing. Everyone’s talking about it, it’s been on the national news.
I think I must have just gawked at her dumbly.
Nobody who knew them answered the phone or was at home. Two Guardia Civil vehicles passed me on the road to her house.
* * *
I look around. The horses splash the muddy ground behind us. Up on the hill, the dogs run round in circles by the garden gate. Reyes’ boyfriend comes walking down the hill holding himself rigidly upright. His face is absolutely pale behind black stubble.
The explanation is quiet and brief:
- Christina, Reyes and Visi went down to the vega to rescue the horses. The water rose suddenly and washed the car away. They found Christina’s body under the bridge. We haven’t been able to find Reyes. It’s a miracle that Visi survived. He managed to catch a tree branch and hold on until the water went down a bit.
Everyone shifts the weight on their feet, looks around. I step up to him.
- I’m so sorry. I’m just glad to see you alive.
He too is standing bolt upright. We embrace.
As I think of anything else to say that will not be painful, the very fact of having to do so shows me that my presence is superfluous. There is a time for studied irrelevance, but this is not it.
The searchers are invited up to the house for a cup of tea. Someone hands him a mobile whose number I hadn’t dared ring. The story is rehearsed once more, and as I wait to take leave of him, I look down the track at a stony wasteland where the horses’ field used to be.
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- I just need to go and buy a sieve. Do you know what the Spanish word is?
My guess turned out to be wrong, so I’ll keep quiet about what it was. J___ wisely decided not to believe me and looked it up.
- How do you spell sieve?
- S, i e or e i, v, e.
- Well, that was the question.
Eventually, armed with the right word, J____ goes out to to shop at the bottom of the hill. In fact, you can walk round and pick stuff up in there, so knowing what to ask for isn’t essential unless you don’t see what you want. This is not the case in most of the hardware shops here, where you are faced by a big counter as soon as you get in.
It is then that one must play the ferret shop game. (In Spanish it is called a ferreteria. Since the panaderia sells pan - bread, the carniceria sells carne - meat, and the pasteleria sells pasteles - cakes, it follows that the ferreteria sells ferrets. Sorry, crap expat joke.)
The first move is to look around and above you, just in case the desired stock is on display. Normally there will be a great shadow board covered in saws, hammers, sickles, spanners and mattocks of all sorts. Behind the counter there should either be an area of fast moving items like vegetable seeds, glue and bleach, or in the really trad places lots of cupboards and drawers full of nails, screws, bathtaps, hinges and plumbing fittings. Hanging from the ceiling there will be three legged stools, shotgun holsters, watering cans, trivets, sunhats or umbrellas according to the season and - always - a full set of dozens of goat bells, from the big basso profundo for the bellwether to teeny little ones for newborns. The clappers, usually sold separately, will be there right by them. Always.
Well perhaps not in the big city, I couldn’t tell you.
Anyway, if you do see what you want, it’s not really the ferret shop game at all, but you rarely do, not that anyone could tell exactly what you were pointing at anyway.
So one way or other the ferret shop game proper begins.
- Who goes? - asks the shop worker. You noted who was there before you when you came in and said hello to the room, because of course queuing is illegal in Spain and everyone just keeps track of it in their heads.
Except in rare cases of disagreement about who was next, the assistant moves to face you across the counter. It’s time for the opening gambit.
- Hello. I wish to buy a thing that I don’t know the word for.
The acute student of psychology will learn much about the person opposite them in the second that follows.
The next move is yours as well, which is rather the nub of the problem, isn’t it?
Describing what it looks like is usually a bad plan. Tell them what it’s for, when one needs such a thing. Involve, if possible, other people who are waiting there. That last bit probably won’t be too hard, anyway. Especially if all else fails and you have to go for the ‘charades’ option.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how to win.
So now you know why J___ is firmly in the habit of doing her homework before going shopping. But the ferret shop game is not just for foreigners. After all, do you know the name for the little nubbins that joins two lengths of hosepipe together?
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A couple of weeks after I had moved into the Malaga house, Antonio asked if I would like to swap days harvesting the almonds. Well of course. Next morning bright and early I walked up to his house, enthusiastic to learn from an expert. We had a coffee in the front room with Antonia, and then headed off with sticks, nets sacks and Platera the donkey.
We walked round to a hilltop near their house, one side of which had almonds belonging to Antonia. The dirt track didn’t go all the way. It was too steep for cars, and it really didn‘t go anywhere. We parked Platera by a shady oak and headed off.
It soon became familiar. You put down the big net first, downhill, with the rebar stakes at the bottom edge. Antonio lamented that we were only two, which meant that we had to place the top edge of each net first, and then arrange the lower edge, drive in the stakes and then go back and redo the top edge,before pulling the little uphill net in place. It is no coincedence that a team of almond pickers is called a cuadrilla, a term that comes from the word for square. You want one for each corner, really.
I couldn’t understand half of what Antonio said, so it was easiest just to copy. Even if someone had taught me Madrid Spanish, it woud have been of little use as he speaks Andaluz anyway. Patiently he showed me the vigorous flicking action that sends the almonds rolling down into the hollow of the downhill net. Without the stakes they would have ended up in the river a couple of hundred meters down. We pulled out as many twigs, branches and husks as we could.
Antonio looked nervous about the next bit.
- Hold the net here.
He got a sack, laid it out carefully on the ground and pulled out the middle stake. The weight of the almonds was unexpected. I nearly lost my hold on the net.
- Gently boy!
He tucked a bit of the net into the sack, held the sack open, and gave me a look of mixed dubiousness and encouragement.
I lifted up the net. Most of the almonds flowed obediently into the sack, before some broke free and bounded off. I got to pick them up.
We pulled the nets round to the next tree. I was hot. I half-drained my water bottle.
- You drink like a rich man.
- So much so soon.
We rested and smoked.
- What did you do before?
- I worked in a labor-atory.
I stumbled over the hard word, but he understood.
- Why have you come here?
- It was bad there. Always inside, no windows, much noise, dangerous chemicals. Here it is healthier, no chemicals.
- That’s true. Would you like another?
He offered me one of his lung-busting cigarettes.
That was a wicked little smile.
- Right, let’s kill this rat.
- Rat? Where?
- No, not that kind of rat, it means finish work.
That was one for my little vocab book. An o at the end of the sentence instead of an a changes it from let’s kill this rat to let’s kill some time. It was like being a kid again, everything new and strange and very confusing. And very hard thirsty work.
Once both of the sacks were full he loaded them onto Platera while I watched. We went back for lunch. Antonia had made potato soup for first course. She ate a bit and then made the second, consisting of eggs, chorizo and whole cloves of garlic deep fried in olive oil, with bread. She pulled it out of the pan with a strainer, put it on my plate, looked a moment and then tipped the pan and poured quite a lot of the oil on top. She went back to her soup while we tackled the fryup.
After a short rest Antonio got up, ready for more. I leaned heavily on the table to push myself up with arms of rubber.
- Ready to go?
- I think the lad is too tired - said Antonia - look at him, he’s not used to the work.
Antonio looked, and kept looking.
- Half a day was enough. He will get stronger. - she said.
- You are right. Go and sleep son.
I took my leave and staggered down the hill. Four or five hours later I woke up, partially recovered from my half day’s effort and lunch.
We swapped mornings regularly after that. Just mornings, and then went and ate separately.
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Here’s a kind of meditation that could be called the ‘life and death’ technique. Put a ladder up against a hedge, climb up while holding a power trimmer, and cut the hedge to height without touching the barbed wire at the top of the fence that is also there. You’re at the top of a ladder using a power tool right next to some barbed wire. Keep all three of these thoughts in your mind constantly for an hour and a half.
The householders are off to town to do some shopping, and now that I‘ve done all of the hedge up to the chicken run I can feel a bit of a skive coming on . There is a big almond tree just there that‘s begging to be hit with a long stick.
It’s a different technique to olive harvesting. Olives have to be stroked off by flicking the stick down along the side of a branch. Almonds are less firmly attached, so mostly just whacking the branches side on sends them flying. Putting down a net would be work, so I just wander around picking them up. After a few minutes, they all seem to be in a pile on the back drive. Really they are a bit underripe ,mostly still have their husks on so they look like undernourished apricots.
You have to dehusk almonds to sell them . It’s easy but tedious if the nuts are fully ripe and recently picked, unless you have a stupendous contraption like Antonio’s ancient dehusker, fourty years old and looking like it ought to be steam-powered. With a huge noise of flapping metal plates it beat the husks into submission in minutes, halving the volume of produce you have to show for your day’s work.
Then I put an almond sideways on its edge and hit it three times with a hammer, a bit harder each time. The shell split neatly in two. The skin of the kernel was not even brown. It had a sweet, milky taste. I put the shelled ones in a plastic bag to take home, a small offering for so much effort, as the volume of almonds you end up with is about a quarter of what is was when they were in their shells.
Jobs are often unsatisfying, whether because they involve meditations on life and death, or boredom, or stress. Nobody likes the one who reminds us that there is always someone worse off, but I’m going to do it now, in memory of the time we went house hunting in a desolate inland part of Almeria, the desert province. The broad strip of upland that scarcely divides the desert from the sown has very little in it apart from almond trees, except for a few irrigation lines hiding deep in some of the gulleys. There were some bargain properties there, alright.
We came to a house by a meeting of back roads, late one morning. The family sat outside. Some of the harvest sat to their left, a conical pile of almonds taller than me. They sat at a little table hammering away, with a stack of empty shells in front and the shelled ones on a sheet to the right, in a pile at most a foot high. What a day’s work. It was going to take them weeks. They would double their money by selling them shelled. A machine costing a couple of thousand euro could have done the job for them.
The parents looked up with interest. The son just gaped. The daughter eyed our car with hatred and longing as we turned off down the road to the coast.
St Drithelm’s day
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This morning I was squatting down by fruit trees putting new drippers onto an irrigation pipe. After the rain it is a privilege to be close to the soil. It has become a living thing again, not just dead summertime powder, and I leaned in close to the perfume it exhaled.
Not that an earthbound life is always so fine. It is inconvenient to become covered in many tiny bits of coniferous hedge, all of them slightly sticky with sap. It is annoying to be dusted in fine powdery clay after a hot day of digging.
The change in social status if I walk through town in such a state is also something hard to reconcile myself to. People look threatened. Slightly put off is understandable, given the state of me sometimes, but inspiring fear and loathing is not something that sits at all easily with my self image. However little I thought I cared about social status, the reality of not having it can be quite irritating. At least people here are less all-consumingly class conscious than in the UK.
During the course of the morning, I noticed that a swelling on my knuckle had developed a dark patch in the middle. It had been there for several months, ever since I stupidly knocked the corner of a rock to fit it into a dry stone wall with my gloves off, and a splinter flew off and embedded itself there. The chip was working its way out, and about time too.
I suppose I was quite lucky not to lose the use of my finger. Anyway it still hurt occasionally, and it felt like time to get rid of it. I bit off the skin covering it, and there was a tiny sliver of rock, firmly embedded. This afternoon I cut around it a bit with a scalpel, squeezed, and saw a black flake of stone the shape of a Neolithic arrowhead and the size of a grain of rice slip out of the wound, like popping the biggest blackhead ever.
- You want to see something gross?
- This just came out of my finger.
T___ smiles broadly.
- That’s disgusting.
I thought so. Living close to the soil is all very well ,but this is ridiculous. In fact it made me feel queasy every time it came to mind today. Well they say a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Thank you for your cooperation.
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There were many battles to decide the border in this area, as well as a lot of horse-trading. It was taken from the Caliphate of Seville by king Sancho IV of Portugal, but subsequently swapped for the Algarve. The Portugese seem to have regretted the deal, and the Spanish had to build a whole string of castles to keep an eye on them.
The one on the hill here in Romanville was possibly rebuilt at that time. It is impossible to say as, in true Spanish style, there doesn’t seem to be any paperwork. Nobody knows what it looked like, as hardly one stone remains on top of another, and no paintings have survived. In the thirties, a local grandee had some walls built which at least gave some employment and look good from the town.
In Cortegana it is a different story. A local society totally rebuilt and maintains a lovely little castle that can be seen for miles around. At the moment it is the focal point for the ‘medaeval days’ that they have each year.
The dusty football pitch serves as a car park. Past the municipal collection of broken dustbins, we go up the long hill, seeing a group of woad-wearing celts with fake fur boots, a bunch of guys in turbans and jellabas, and some local kids hanging out by the bus station trying to look bored. The buildings go from concrete Bauhaus to Traditional Basic
to Art Deco as we near the top.
In the first square is a really good group of bagpipe players (truth) attended by a juggler, someone dressed as a belly dancer, and several painted damsels enticing the men to dance. The father of triplets next to me comes in for some merciless flirting on account of his potency, until he blushes bright red and tries to pretend that I’m the dad. They don’t believe him, for some reason.
The players set off up the hill, with us in tow. Past the stalls, up the old road we get to the castle compound. A blacksmith works a huge hand-bellows and gives out newly-minted nails. An enormous circular barbacue sends sparks flying in the strong wind.
The local archery club pretend to be a squad of English longbowmen decimating an (unfortunately) imaginary charge of French mounted knights. The leader explains that the index and middle fingers are needed to pull a bowstring, which is why the English use a two-finger salute to mean victory. He demonstrates, giving us all a V sign, back of the hand outmost. My laughter mystifies the people nearby.
On the way back down we meet the belly dancer with a drummer and a clarinetist, but this time she really dances, entrancing us in the shade of the massive church wall, surrounded by stalls selling wooden toys, leather goods, moroccan sweets, woven linen stuff, painted ceramic tiles and advice on how to live ones life according to the precepts of the american book of the dead (in american).
The philosophy of child rearing
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- What does intellect mean dad?
- It’s the word for all the thoughts your brain has.
- I don’t understand.
- Well thoughts are what your brain does, and intellect is the name for all the thoughts you are able to have.
- But mum says your intellect is the thing that makes you have thoughts.
- Ah. J___!
- We need to have an argument about philosophy.
- While I’m in the bath?
- It’s very important
- Perhaps a bit of context would be helpful here.
- What did she say?
- We’ll talk about it later.
But lunchtime intervenes. Little D___ won’t eat pasta and pesto, he just wanders around examining things and telling himself stories in his own language.
- Issa eg.
- Bless him, he just said ‘egg’. That’s right love, it’s the dragon’s egg.
- Oh, mum, it’s not really an egg. D___, it’s just a stone we use to keep that door open. We just call it the dragon’s egg, it’s not a real egg.
- Issa eg.
- Not really love, T___’s right, it’s just a stone.
- See, it’s two to one against you, you lose.
- Don’t listen to them D___, it’s a dragon’s egg really.
- Dad, it is not!
- But if I say it is, it’s not two to one any more.
- But it’s a stone!
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- Look how the sunlight paints the trees.
The winter sun shone down almost parallel to the steep hillslope on the other side of the valley. Each olive tree was picked out in its own shade of silvergold on a backdrop of shadowy grass. We stood for several moments before getting our bags and baskets from where they were hanging in a tree we had done the day before.
We sat in the only flat place and got out our lunch. I had a loaf of bread, a fried chorizo sausage and a couple of tomatoes. Everyone shared what they brought, but the star of the show was Miguel.
- I can’t stand dry food. - he said, taking the gingham napkin from his wicker basket, and removing a large Tupperware box. He took from it a corked bottle of olive oil, a bottle of vinegar, a lettuce, a can of olives and a jar of roast peppers. Then from the basket came a salt shaker, a pepper pot, an orange, half a cucumber and a tin of tuna.
He took out a penknife and chopped up the lettuce, the cucumber and the orange, holding them over the box, pulling the blade through them until it came to rest on his thumb. I gave him a tomato. He opened the jar of peppers, poured off the liquid and dropped the rest into the mix, then the olives, then the tuna. He uncorked the olive oil and opened the vinegar, poured in plenty of both, then the salt and pepper, and finally a good deal of water.
We put bread, yoghurt meat and cheese on the napkin, circled the Tupperware box, sitting on the left foot, right elbows on right knees. We took out our knives. Each of us then cut a corner off a loaf, stuck it on a knife’s end, and used that as a kind of spoon to scoop up the swimming salad. Soon we left Miguel and his 10 year old son to finish it and drink the juice, and went off to find a confortable bush to lie on. It was quite warm in the sun at midday. The sound of the river far below was just audible.
Soon enough it was time to get up, step off the road onto the hillside, form up a four to pull the nets towards the trunk of the next tree while someone cleaned the suckers and thick-stemmed plants from around. The big net went downslope from the trunk, with 4 bits of rebar propping up the lower edge to stop the olives rolling off. The other net covered the uphill side, overlapped, and if necessary, folded over at the edge to prevent losses. The we took our poles and started whisking the olives off. I often took the short pole and climbed the tree to hit it from above.
The next step was to lift the upper net to spill the olives down into one heap. Then everyone pulled out as many twigs and leaves as possible before decanting the olives into a sack. We got six or eight sacks a day, depending on the trees an the steepness of the slope.
Towards evening Frasco, the boss and landowner, came along to see how things were going, leaving his wife in charge of their bar. I was helping fold the nets (lengthways twice) before we rolled them up. Juan, the oldest man in the team, cut 3 suckers from a nearby tree with one blow of his pruning axe so that they came off still attached to one another. He wrapped them round the roll of net, put the tips of the branches through the gap between their bases, pulled back to tighten, and tucked them under to secure the whole bundle.
I was the only one who was a regular at Frasco’s bar, so he usually stopped to chat for a minute, but where was he? I soon heard his voice.
- I didn’t give you permission to walk there! - he cries out shouting slow, elongating the vowels to make them carry.
- But the goats are hungry! - comes the perennial reply.
- They will harm the trees!
- The olives are taken!
The goatherd is with his flock on the steepest, lowest part of Frasco’s land by the river. I wonder how many times they have had this conversation. Very soon, a deal is struck. It just so happened that the goatherd had his two donkeys with him, wearing harness suitable for carrying sacks. They are dispatched up the hill in Miguel’s care to take the olives up to the track while the goats eat in peace.
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T is doing his homework on the kitchen table. A worksheet exhorts him to practice writing fa fe fi fo fu several times, and then write words corresponding to various pictures and circle those containing the letter f. Halfway through he gets bored, and starts looking around for diversion. There is an interesting word on a cardboard box.
- Eeen glee eengalee eengalees dad what’s that word over there?
- That one? It says ‘English’.
- That’s wrong. It ought to start with an ‘i’ then.
- Well, English spelling doesn‘t really make much sense a lot of the time. You just have to learn the words one by one.
- That’s silly.
T has learned a lot in his first year of proper school. It is a crash course in literacy and numeracy; a good deal of seriousness is expected of the student. No coercion is used, unlike in the old days when it was said that ’la letra entra con sangre’ (the letter enters with blood). The old way probably didn’t work all that well either - as one friend of mine here was put off school permanently when his friend was beaten on the first day. Still, those who fail to appreciate the importance of mastering their book this year are going to have a lot of trouble later on.
Education was a serious matter in the old days, expensive as it was. Plenty of the older country folk are largely illiterate. They are vastly impressed by free universal compulsory schooling, as well they might be. I remember one old fella talking to some kids by the side of the road one morning. He knew the farm where they lived, the former owners going back a couple of generations, and the worth of it’s land , as he did for all the places thereabouts. The kids had been driven several miles up to the tarmac road where they could catch the school bus.
- So you’re all going to school?
The younger one says yes.
- Three scholars in one family! Very good. Do you all work hard? Of course! Three scholars in the same house!
The oldest rolled her eyes as he went to his day’s work on the hillside.
Of our Malaga neighbours, Antonio was illiterate, having been born the youngest son of a poor farmer some time in the early thirties. He could sign his name. Antonia could read quite well and write a bit, as she had been born into a family wealthy enough to have the priest come to her house once a week, to instruct her older brothers. She and her sister had been allowed to sit in, and were made to do the same homework, although there was no-one to mark it.
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We went to the main square at around half nine as usual this evening, but it was not the same as ever. People were setting up a sound system in the corner, and there was a table and two chairs in the middle of the bit where someone is generally playing headers and volleys: for tonight, for one night only, ‘Traces - dance in unwonted landscapes’ had come to the streets of Aracena.
Someone handed out programmes. Three performances in different squares. Someone chalk-outlined a large square area around the table. Little girls spontaneously started playing a jumping game over the chalk line. The first piece advertised on the flyer was entitled ‘On weight and light’ - an active territory where the various characters’ conflicts sketch a landscape with their bodies on a field of flashing lights, to create parallel universes where the lyrical mixes with the visceral. To hear the song of the mermaids and linger. To close and open the eyes with the intermittency of city lights.
I don’t see a lighting rig…
Gradually everyone realised that a woman in a black dress was moving with stylised self-aware grace towards the table. Soon a man joined her. They drank silently together as music played. They talked, joked, shouted, jumped to their feet, fought, threw the furniture about, then stood on the upside-down table tenderly making up, with the four legs stuck up in the air around them marking out a very private and intimate space. A small girl rode past them on her pink three wheeled scooter.
Puzzled and disappointed at the lack of mermaids, I read the programme properly. We’d have to go to Cartaya at the end of the month to see that one. Oh well. The next one here today is up the hill by the daycare centre. Chavala decides she better take D off to bed, but T is wildly excited to see the rest.
I watch a man crawl around on the floor, do pushups and climb on the fence in what appears to be not so much dance as a meticulously contrived piece of showing off. After it is over, T comes skipping back from the front row.
- I didn’t think much of that one. - I ask - Did you?
- I liked it. If you looked closely, he moved his feet a lot in very clever ways, and looked around all the time. I think he was in prison when he was behind the bars, and then he was escaping from the police.
- Apparently he was asking what relation there is between time and distance, whether time can be danced, and if not whether it even exists.
- He still got away from the police though.
The last act of the night were a Brazillian hip hop crew called Membros, doing a show called Meio fio, a brilliantly acted out dance of hunger, dispair and urban poverty. Afterwards they came forward and took their bows formally. We applauded till our hands hurt.
Monday morning, time to talk of work.
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- Could you cut the grass from around that bush, and also all that alfalfa over there. There are lots of weeds by the swimming pool too, but this time I’d like you to leave it all in the sun to make hay, instead of letting them have it right away.
- How about just here, it can’t be seen from the house that way.
This place has a corral with two donkeys in it. How they love me, the man that gives them all the weeds and prunings. They must have a pile each, and nothing pleases them more than to run from one to the other to ensure that they are not being short changed. Today was a torment for them.
I started uprooting the wild peas that had taken over the rosebushes by the pool while the owners had been on holiday. Once there was a barrow load I took them over behind the stable where they could dry out.
The donkeys could see perfectly well what was happening, as they almost choked themselves, maddened with frustration, pushing out over the fence rail to get that little bit closer, still twenty meters away. I went to get another barrow load of pea plants. When I went past the corral and dumped them with the rest, all patience with me was exhausted and they brayed in unison, a full throated bellow of rage. The fell beast in the Lord of the Rings films was given a voice based on just that noise. It literally raised my hackles; each hair on the back of my neck came to life at a resonant frequency.
The strimmer would not work, so I went in the shed and found the scythe and a whetstone. I ran my thumb along the blade, and then started drawing the stone across the blunt rusty edge, making it sing like a bell as it started to come up bright. I did the other side of the blade and then touched it again. Sharp.
I walked to the alfalfa with the blade down and away from me, feeling the uncanny power of it at every moment. Nobody uses these things any more, they have lost all but their mythological associations. It felt like I ought to be wearing a black cowl, a grinning reaper carrying the reminder of our frailty. It’s satisfying work, scything - watching the crowds of stems lay down with a sigh. Thinking every moment of posture, of footwork and swing with such precision and intensity that it becomes a working meditation. An exercise in detatchment if ever there was one.
Soon it was done. Time restarted. I took the scythe back to the shed and put it down with care.
St. Samsons day
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The worst time of day is the ten minutes after waking up from a siesta. I don’t know if it happens to everybody, but for ten minutes I lie there scarcely able to move, throwing out heat like an oven so that even having a sheet on me to keep off the flies is intolerable.
After establishing in my own mind that it is afternoon, not morning, and that delay rather than expedition will best ensure that I end up working when it’s not so hot, I stagger out to look for some gazpacho in the fridge. It is best diluted with ice water and drunk from a glass.
On the way to the sofa, there is a mass of toy castle pieces and soldiers in the living room doorway, looking tlike they were scattered when someone opened the door. After a couple of minutes, T appears, damp-headed from the paddling pool.
- Do you know what happened here? It was a fight, and all of these ones died.
- You mean this is a battlefield? I thought they were just lying around.
- No, this one was crushed by this spiky bit, these ones were killed by arrows, and the rest were killed in a swordfight. Then the others used the siege tower as a corpse yard because they couldn’t bury them.
- That’s gruesome!
- Yes, our hero came out of his castle, and got up on his siege tower, like this, and came round the side like this, and killed them all like I told you, because they were the bad guys.
- Are you sure? Maybe they thought they were the good guys and he was the bad one.
- Yes, everyone always thinks they are the good guys, and all these ones thought that they were, and that our hero was the bad guy.
- So how can you tell which is which? Or suppose you got it the wrong way round?
This gives T pause for thought, as he is of an age to give a serious answer to important questions.
- Because the bad guys always attack first, and try to take over and rule over everybody else, and the good guys just defend. Our hero was in his castle just minding his own business when this lot came along.
I turn on the news to see what is happening in the middle east. Everyone, it seems, was minding their own business until the other lot attacked.
At least no UN observers or refugees were killed on my living room floor.
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I worked today at a country house on a hill, overlooking a confluence of river valleys. The place is new, even the area near the house has wildness in it, despite the lawns that much of my past year has been dedicated to. The sprinklers throw water over the uncultivated slopes between the narrow grassy terraces, causing a wildly exaggerated bloom of spring flowers. The time of their beauty is short, and my task was to pick up their stacked remains and compost them.
First, I turned the old compost over and threw it into the next bin. Most of it was anaerobic slime that smelled very similar to fresh cow shit. After a few minutes, so did I. Really, this sort of labour is best left to a ruminant stomach. Then I forked up a great load of mallow, thistles and sweet peas and barrowed it over to the heap. And again, and again. It’s not exactly rocket science, but there was a nightingale singing in a tree nearby. A green lizard, more than a foot long including its tail, squeezed into a hole that looked far too small for it.
After a while, the heap was waist height, and it was easier to grab the weeds and throw them in instead of using the fork. Before I knew what had happened, I had yelled high and loud because of the pain in my forearm. I looked down for a wasp, ready to run if it was a small nest, and saw a scorpion. Yellow legs, brown body, tail arched.
Time went very fast, and very slow. I wondered whether it was possible to stop hyperventilating. I wasn’t sweating this much a minute ago. Walk slowly to the house, slow down. Sit in the shade. Don’t dither, tell someone.
I’ve seen plenty of these scorpions before, usually right after cutting them in half with a digging tool, although once I was about to start picking up rocks with someone, and explained the risks, and showed him how to lift the far edge of the rock so they would advance away from you, and one came out from the very first rock I chose. The look of awe on his face was gratifying.
They can even be funny, stories about other people getting stung, like the girl who sat down for a rest in the shade of an olive tree without first making sure someone else wasn’t sitting there. She went to the health centre, where she was assured with a poorly concealed smirk that it was never fatal. She couldn’t sit down again for days. I suspect it had already improved in the retelling by the time I heard it.
I was taken to the health centre and stank the place out, clothes smeared with decaying grass. There were hardly any staff, and no triage, so I jumped the queue at the reception desk. Nobody was minded to get too close to me. The pain was swelling, exploring nerves and ligaments. They injected local anaesthetic under the site of the sting, and gave me some strong painkillers for later.
There was a feeling of loss. This was an ordeal, my ordeal. I should have refused medication, sweated it out, been purified and strengthened, become an initiate. But there is no stung-by-a-scorpion society to be initiated into these days, and I was very, very glad about having lots of painkillers at four in the morning. Perhaps ancient wisdom, or the impulse towards it is all just striving to make the best of a bad job. People’s thoughts are certainly capable of wandering strange paths, with or without large intramuscular doses of anti-histamine and cortisol in their bum.
A couple of days later, I went back to that place. We had a cup of tea and told other scorpion sting stories. I started feeling queasy and weak, but decided to get on with some weeding and see how it went. But first I went back to the compost bins. The wheelbarrow of dry weeds was untouched. Very carefully I forked them onto the heap, a few at a time. The sickness subsided.
Unfinished business with a compost heap. How’s that for a phrase to stir the soul?
Gas delivery day
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The sound of a Colonel bogey car horn comes up the hill, to let everybody know that the gas delivery man is doing the rounds. There is no mains gas here, so everybody gets it in 25 liter bottles. I don’t bother trying to be in the house to catch the delivery service - after a few years of living in the middle of nowhere, I’m in the habit of going to the petrol station and swapping empty for full there. Almost every month the price goes up. There’s not a lot of gas under the ground round here.
We have four bottles - one for the hot water, one for the cooker, one for the living room space heater in winter, and a spare. The one in the space heater only lasts a couple of weeks when it’s cold, which ends up being quite expensive, so I think next year we’ll use a brazier instead.
In traditional Spanish homes there is very often a circular table in the living room, whose heavy tablecloth reaches to the floor. You pull up a chair, lift the tablecloth up onto your knees, and put your feet on a wooden platform a few inches above the ground. It’s lovely and warm, because there is a circular hole in the middle of the platform which contains a brazier.
These days they are usually electric or gas, but traditionally they always used charcoal. Those who were well off enough to have a chimney would take the glowing embers from the fireplace, but many poorer village folk would set the brazier on the doorstep, burn the wood down to charcoal and bring it in when it stopped smoking. There are a few old folk in hilltop villages near Malaga who still do this on winter mornings, often with a pile of branches left at their doorway by someone in thier family.
There is a fireplace in our kitchen, but it was unusable, for lack of a chimney. When ther roof was last mended 35 years ago, the upper part of the flue was demolished. Richer people have always bought charcoal, and of course were the first to switch to gas and electricity, so that was the aspiration of all who could afford it.
The seller explained the odd chimneypiece, with a joist going straight into it and all, in those terms:
- My father wanted to heat the house with gas. Smoke was the smell of poverty.
And maybe it will be again, if gas get expensive enough to be considered a luxury, but I rather like the smell of wood smoke.
St Patrick’s day
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The most privileged place I drive to work is by a river, in a narrow flatbed valley. There are trees on the hills all around, and a greensward by the water. There are otters, kingfishers, storks, and on one occasion a flight of over fifty eagles migrating north. Only a small scum of bubbles floating on the stream show that there is a town upstream.
I go to a stony bank, stranded after a flood a few years ago, to pick rocks for a series of retaining walls I’m building by the house up on the hill, so there may be productive terraces up there on what was previously a steep, neglected slope. They will need water lifted by a mains-electric pump, and in this way Christina will get a crop of vegetables even if the main patch down on the flat is washed away in one of the torrents that thunder down the vega every couple of years.
Once there it‘s a question of turning up rocks, gloves on, lifting always the further side first so that brave and mobile inhabitants will head away from me. Actually this is quite unlikely: the vipers and scorpions prefer dry ground higher up, but many a little frog, centipede and spider has become temporarily homeless in this way, and ant’s nests have lost their eggchamber roofs.
Many times I have carried a rock to which adhered on the underside a small fluffy parcel of spider’s eggs, while the scandalised mother, having initially refused to budge, sought a shady place from which to glare at me.
I don’t feel happy about it. Isn’t it wrong to do that to an animal? Maybe everyone should sweep the ground before them to prevent crushing tiny living things. Or watch mosquitos landing, and say ‘go in peace’ when they fly off, blood-laden. Perhaps I should go and meditate, seek enlightenment before trying to mess around with the world at all, leave the family to shift as best they can. It’s all very well to walk lightly on the earth, but just how small a footprint can one leave anyway?
Should it even be as small and short lived as possible? I was pleased to learn that the client wants me to make another series of terraces by the one now taking shape, and hope to use the classic wallbuilder’s line when this job is over - ‘Call me if there are any problems in fifty years time.’
El dia del Carmen
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Family run small town department stores must be a rarity these days, but the one here seems to thrive. There are some apartments above it belonging to older members of the clan, one of which has a balcony overlooking the short street between the big church of Maria del Carmen and the town square. I have often admired it from the high street, but today I was up there grafting a lemon tree for the wife of the store’s owner.
It started off as a seed planted in a yoghurt pot by one of her sons, and is still there in a big pot years after he left, ten feet tall and wickedly spined. She phoned me after I pruned her cousin’s jasmine.
- Is there anything you can do? It has never given any fruit.
- It needs to be grafted - trees grown from seed are usually like that.
- Can you do that for me?
Swallows hard - Of course. Would Tuesday afternoon be convenient?
I’d never grafted a citrus in my life. Sortly thereafter, concentrating so hard my lips moved as I read, I was looking at a PDF online (thank you, Pam Elam, University of California Cooperative Farm Advisor of Fresno County, I owe you one).
At the appointed time, I turned up wearing best shoes (newly blacked) rather than muddy boots, carrying a rucksack containing among other things two branches from a friend’s lemon tree, a grafting knife, secateurs, a pruning saw, a piece of string and a tin of clear beeswax shoe polish.
The inside of the appartment was a model of expensive good taste. The openwork cast iron table and chairs on the balcony would have been a perfect place to watch the world go by. I cut the tree down to a stump, cut and peeled the bark in the approved manner, fashioned the two twigs to make them fit, applied the beeswax to the graft union to stop it drying out, and tied it all off.
She was friendly without being obtrusive. I stayed a while afterwards, saw photos of her sons and of holidays in Argentina, and chatted about her many operations, and the likenesses and differences in the therapeutic cutting of plants and animals, and of the weakness and the strength of living things.
- The main thing, I think, is to enjoy life and live without fear. There is a big farm near here where brave bulls are raised, do you know it?
- That place where there is a bullring in the middle of a field?
- Yes. Well, you know that sometimes if a bull is very noble and fights with great bravery it’s life will be spared.
- No. I thought thay were always killed.
- Not always. If the president of the fight decides that the animal is too noble to die, he will ‘pardon it’s life’. Well this happened with one bull from that place. It was healed, and used as a stud. When I saw it, it was old and half blind, they used to let it walk around the house.
- What, inside their own house?
- Oh yes. I had to lift my hand up to head height to stroke it. It’s horns were nearly as long as my arm.
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The bass drums started at half past five this morning, in the unvarying rhythm of the solemn easter parade left, left, left right left. Slow, slow, quick quick slow. The via Dolorosa winds through Aracena, one station of the cross for each of the churches and hermitages. It’s route has not changed for centuries, totally ignoring the new roads as it traces out the shape of the five pointed star that the town used to be before new development filled in the gaps.
There are three brotherhoods. Each is based in a warehouse in different parts of town where the floats for the holy statues are kept, as well as the costumes and trappings, and where the bands practice. The municipal band is agreeable to listen to, and marches with the most important processions, but each brotherhood has a band of its own as well.
They practice in their warehouses for weeks before, coming out for a big musical show in the square a few days before the marching season. They invariably consist of drums and cornets, and they are all absolutely bloody awful. The battle of the bands is a series of crimes against music, made worse by the fact that each of them is OK in most ways. The blue band just has no rhythm. The white one consists entirely of tone deaf individuals, and as for the soloist of the otherwise adequate yellow one, I’m just not going to allow myself to be tempted into any indiscretions of language.
But the really astound ing thing about easter week here - and it still makes me turn my head and stare after years - is the sight of the penitents. They dress in long medaeval robes of stiff material, often with coloured fabric crosses on their chest or shoulders, and tall pointed conical hoods, leaving just a couple of tiny holes for the eyes. The hoods have a tendency to fall back, so they must pull on the bottom hem, which covers the throat, in order to be able to see out.
Each brotherhood has its own colour scheme according to the statue and the day. It is quite normal to see them walking down the road in pairs, chatting, dads with their sons, the points of whose headdresses reach to their dad‘s shoulder height.
They hang around outside the church, sometimes wrestling with the formidable logistical challenge of having a swift fag before the procession starts. They try very hard not to show their faces, and cannot therefore travel in cars, as even the biggest 4 wheel drives don’t have anything like enough headroom.
Then they line the street in irregular double file and precede and follow the float and the band, holding thick votive candles a meter long, which colour coordinate with their hoods. The leaders carry tall crosses of ornate silver work on long staves. Every now and then, when the procession stops in one of the appointed places, one of them will throw a few sweets to the kids in the crowd.
As far as the kids are concerned, this is less important that the wax ball competition. Starting with a walnut, or a scrunched up bit of aluminium foil of about that size, they run from penitent to penitent asking them to tip out the molten wax from their candle. They keep a close eye on each other in order to avoid asking someone who has just done it and has little wax to spare.
It’s a long way for the little penitents, who must have something to eat and drink on the way. Their mums come prepared with juice and sandwiches, calling names, asking which one is which.