NOT DRIVING OVER LEMONS
Like so many starry-eyed seekers after Shangri-La, we had embarked on our expedition armed with a well-thumbed copy of Chris Stewart’s Driving over Lemons, his idyllic tale of life in the Alpujarras. Trawling the internet, I had found an estate agent’s advertisement for a rustic cortijo in the same region.
When we arrived at the bar in the village of Laroles, where we had arranged to meet the agent, a chill wind was gusting and it was beginning to snow. This ought not to have been surprising, as it was mid-winter, and at over a thousand metres, Laroles is the highest village in Sierra Nevada. The agent did not appear until we finally managed to raise her on Val’s mobile. The better kind of realtor is notable for her enthusiasm and her warm interest in her clients. This was not one of the better kind.
‘This is not a good day for house-hunting,’ she grizzled miserably,
‘wouldn’t you like to come back again after the weather improves?’
‘Would we like to make another fourteen thousand mile round trip from the Far East? What do you think?’
We crammed into the agent’s tiny old Seat Ibiza and set off along the rough switchback track to the house we had come to see. The demisters were not doing much demisting and the windscreen wipers were hardly coping with the driving snow. To our left there was a sheer sixty-foot drop to a raving river.
‘Hold tight, the next part’s a bit rough.’
The Seat fishtailed and shimmied for a moment as we hit the foot-deep mud, then the driver floored the accelerator, and we came out of the other side of the slalom with a plop like the cork from a bottle of chilled cava. The cortijo, surrounded by chestnut trees with the snow clad sierra at its back and the thundering torrent at its feet, was spectacular but clearly not for us.
A week later we found the old finca we call El Cortijo del Rector. The eighty olive and almond trees were wildly overgrown, and the rambling old stone house sadly dilapidated. Half the roof consisted of rusting corrugated iron sheets, the wiring was by Heath-Robinson’s Spanish cousin and both the internal and external rendering were falling away in chunks. Corresponding by email (a risky strategy and definitely not to be recommended) with a local builder who turned out to be semi-efficient and not quite totally corrupt, we completed the earlier stages of restoration just on the solvent side of bankruptcy.
By the time we returned in June, three poky rooms had become one pleasant living area and the front door opened onto a sunny new patio, with a view down the valley through the olive groves to the distant blue mountains of the Torcal de Antequera and the setting sun beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Our pensions were still in the future, and for the next five years we only saw El Cortijo del Rector during summer and Christmas vacations, but after ten rootless years on four continents we finally had a place to come home to.
THE ANDALUZ HOKEY-COKEY
They take the old roof off,
They put a new roof on,
The new roof leaks,
So you know it’s been a con.
You do the Hokey-Cokey
And you spend more cash.
That’s what it’s all about.
Our first builder was a plausible Spanish crook, I’ll call him Diego. When we returned from the Far East inspect his work it looked fine except for the mountains of rubble dumped in the huerta right in front of the house.
‘Diego, before I pay you, you’ll need to move that lot.’
‘I wouldn't advise it. The house is on a steep slope and all that material keeps it from sliding down into the arroyo.’
‘Don’t be silly, get it shifted.’
‘OK on your head be it, but I’ll have to charge you an extra two hundred euros.’
‘In your dreams, compañero.’
The rubble duly disappeared, but Diego didn’t put himself to the inconvenience of hauling it away. He simply dumped it in the drain behind the house, which is why we were met by a flood when we opened the front door on our return from India.
Diego is now comfortably retired (every now and then he gives me a cheery wave as he sweeps by in his metallic green BMW) but here at El Cortijo del Rector we have daily reminders of him. To save himself a few pesetas he told the man who was laying the upstairs floors to put five dabs of cement on each tile rather than coating it properly, so a couple of years ago the tiles started to squeak and click like a family of field mice playing castanets. The new roof leaked too.
As Diego’s passle of payasos never rose to the challenge of keeping the rain off our heads we turned to Nigel. From his deep, warm Lancashire tones, we knew instantly that here was a man we could trust with our very lives and the impression was confirmed when he turned out to be from Val’s home village of Orrell three-and-a-half miles west of Wigan.
We were still working on the other side of the world, so at the end of the Christmas vacation we confidently left Nigel with our to-do list which included installing a screen in the upstairs bathroom for which we foolishly paid him in advance. By the time we returned in the summer, Nigel had decamped back to God’s Own County and there was no sign of the new screen.
I repeatedly emailed him demanding a refund but Nigel produced a series of increasingly inventive fictions, clearly intending to hang onto my cash until either I gave up hope or one of us died of old age.
Fortunately, Nigel was not only a crook but also a stupid crook. Some years previously I had used the services of a formidable firm of litigators whom I’ll call Messrs Soo, Grabbitt and Runne. In sending my final demand to Nigel, I copied it to a fictitious Mr Hardman Grabbitt at the firm’s chambers in High Holborn. Nigel must have googled and discovered their fearsome reputation, for wonder of wonders, the money appeared in my bank account the following day.
This triumph stands as a monument to the only time in my life I have ever got the better of a so-called builder.
Shaun came to us highly recommended, if only by himself.
‘I’m the greatest, sir,’ said he,
I will come and rescue thee.’
...or words to that effect.
His first task was to install our new wood burning stove. This worked perfectly, until the soot built up and it dawned on us that Shaun had not included any means of cleaning the chimney. Shoving a brush up the stove was not an option because the flue runs at a sharp angle through a wall which is a metre thick. So, whenever it needed sweeping, I had to sit on the roof, dangling a ten pound grandfather clock weight on a clothes line to break up the debris in the chimney, which then spilled out in choking clouds into the living room when we opened the door of the stove.
Javi assured us that he was the man to solve one of our chronic bugbears. Our staircase, the only means of access to the upper storey, descended right in the middle of the main living room, effectively cutting it in two.
‘It’s simple,’ said Javi, ‘we’ll install a caracol.’
The beautiful and expensive spiral staircase, hardwood and steel, arrive in kit form. Javi’s team erected it and it looked splendid.
The only problem was that nobody taller than a hunchbacked gnome could have walked up it without cracking his skull on the low beams.
‘No problem,’ said Javi, ‘we'll turn it into a straight staircase.’
‘That’s what we had in the first place.’
‘We’ll shorten it by removing the upstairs landing.’
‘So, if I miss that narrow top step on my way to pee at three o’clock in the morning, I’ll sleepwalk into space; one small step for a man, two broken legs if he doesn’t land on his head.’
THE MONKEY SPEAKS
Finally, after more than ten years of Andaluz hokey-cokey, three steps forward, two steps back, I did what I ought to have done in the first place and went down the hill to speak with José el Vecino.
‘Talk to Mono,’ said José.
‘He’s really Juan Antonio, but everybody around here has an apodo, a nickname.’
‘So this Juan Antonio looks like a monkey?’
‘Not particularly, at least he looks no more like a monkey than our mate Gamba looks like a prawn, but he’s not a vacquero, and he knows his stuff.’
I telephoned Juan Antonio and sure enough a cheerful voice replied ‘Habla el Mono’, ‘the Monkey speaks’.
So we talked to Mono, and following the detailed plans drawn up by our architect, he built us a two-storey extension, housing a wide, elegant staircase, with floor-to-ceiling shelving on the landing to accommodate part of our library.
Unlike any of our previous builders, Mono actually seemed to take a personal interest in our quirky old cortijo. Rediscovering a ‘lost’ living room fireplace he reopened it and it now provides a glass-shelved space for my brass cannon, my 18th century Indian daggers and a host of other mementos from our wandering life on four continents.
Mono is a powerful individual with arms like Popeye, and the day before the new staircase was installed, I watched him grasp the edge of the floor above and nonchalantly swing himself from the lower level to the upper landing, using only the power of his mighty arms. ‘I begin to understand the nickname,’ I said.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
You’ve met Everard and Norman, or you certainly know somebody like them. They used to be regulars at the White Lion and Railway in Wigan and since they retired to Spain they’ve taken over a corner in my local where they rattle their dominoes aggressively when María turns off the TV at quiz time.
‘Do you like quizzes, you, Norman?’
‘I can’t stand ‘em.’
‘Neither can I.’
At my advanced age I have few ambitions left, but two of the remaining ones are focused on Everard and Norman. The first is to find anything apart from beer and dominoes that these two curmudgeons actually like. The second is to drag them by hook, crook or preferably some more painful agricultural implement, to one of the events presented by my choir. They didn’t, of course, come to our choral evensong a couple of months back.
‘We don’t travel much in th’ winter, tha knaws.’
‘Travel? The church is only a cock stride from this bar.’
‘We don’t like churches.’
‘What about concerts? We’ve got one coming up at the end of May. Music for a Spring Evening.’
‘We don’t like Spring. It allus rains.’
‘The concert’s indoors. And the end of May is nearly Summer.’
‘We don’t like Summer, it’s too hot.’
We’ve been having this kind of conversation for some years now, ever since the choir’s first concert, a Victorian evening called Sing Around the Aspidistra.
‘I don’t like singing, do you Norman?’
‘Not bloody likely.’
‘You don’t have to sing. The choir does the singing.’
‘Round an aspidistra?'
‘Why not a piano? You’d get a better tune out of a piano.’
‘There’s a piano as well.’
‘I should hope so. I can’t see the point of aspidistras, can you, Norman?’
‘No. Bloody great green things. What use are they?’
‘Forget the aspidistra. Just come to the show. We’ll be doing some great music, Abba, for instance.’
‘I don’t like Swedes.’
‘Neither do I. Give me a plate of chips anytime.’
‘And some really catchy South American songs.’
‘We don’t do Spanish except for ‘Dos cervezas, por favor.’
‘It won’t all be Spanish. Alex will be playing some Scottish favourites on the accordion.
‘More foreign stuff, then.’
‘All right, I give up, getting you two to appreciate a bit of culture was always going to be the impossible dream.’
‘The impossible dream.’
‘Now that’s a proper tune, that is. If you were singing that one I’d definitely buy a ticket, wouldn’t you, Norman?’
‘Aye, I would that.’
‘But we are going to sing it.’
‘Why the ‘ell didn’t you say so in the first place? How much are the tickets?
‘Ten euros for Cancer Research.’
‘There you go, squire, and keep the change.’
‘There isn’t any.’
‘I wondered how long it would take you to spot that.’
THE KLAN…SURELY NOT
Semana Santa, Holy Week in Spain, is world famous for its great religious processions culminating in the solemn act of witness on Good Friday, when huge floats depicting the sufferings of Jesus and the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary are carried in procession accompanied by the drums and trumpets of marching bands. Each float, weighing two tons or more, is borne on the brawny shoulders of its forty bearers.
Ahead of the float walks the senior brother of the cofradia, attended by his campanillero, a child wearing a gold-embroidered velvet robe, who rings a little bell to signal the trono to move or stop. In times gone by, the bell ringer, like everyone else in the procession, would have been male, but these days she is just as likely to be female, as are the thurifers, who swing the ornate silver censers, and any or all of the penitentes.
The penitentes of ancient days walked barefaced to show repentance for their sins, but the aristocratic sinners of later times were shy of revealing their identities, hence the nazareno, a robe with a conical hood which completely conceals the face of the wearer except for the eyes. I showed my Good Friday photos to my consuegro Jay at his home north of Duluth. He stared at the penitentes in their pointed hoods and his jaw dropped in disbelief.
Jesus!’ he exclaimed, ‘The cops would never let the Klan get away with that kind of thing in America.'
BORIS AND THE DELINQUENTS
When our beautiful, great, golden, Basil died at the age of thirteen we were grief-stricken. We missed him sorely and nothing will ever replace him, but life without a dog seemed unthinkable.
I emailed Pepi’s refuge: ‘We are looking for a big dog, Toys R definitely not Us’. That was before Biggles exploded into our lives.
Boris is one of nature’s gentledogs, which is surprising, given his start in life. Born of an unlikely and no doubt transient relationship between a mastiff and a greyhound, he was clubbed over the head and left to die in a ditch. Workers on the tracks for the new AVE high-speed train heard the puppy whimpering and brought him bleeding and bedraggled to Jane and Alan at Pepi’s refuge. He grew up into a big, white, handsome Borzoi-like fellow with long legs, huge paws and floppy, spotty ears.
When he joined us at El Cortijo del Rector we thought in our innocence that we were adopting Boris but in reality, of course, he was adopting us. When we call him in because we need to go to the village market he reproaches us with a tragic stare and when we return home, he hangs his head in mock misery and raises a shoulder in a hunchbacked pose reminiscent of Lawrence Olivier in one of his iconic Shakespearean roles. ‘Ah,’ I tell him understandingly, ‘Boris the Third.’’
Poppy is small, black, bright-eyed and gentle. The moment we sat down in Rob and Caroline’s living room she would hop onto my lap and settle in for the duration while I scratched her head and played with her silky ears.
‘I’ve only ever had big dogs,’ I told Caroline, ‘but if Poppy ever has pups I want one.’
That was ten years ago and Poppy’s son has been part of our lives ever since.
We were not sure how Boris would react to this diminutive interloper so at first we kept him in his carry-case while the galgo-mastin stalked stiff-legged around it staring disapprovingly down his long aristocratic nose. The puppy was horrified. He missed his mum. He missed the smells of home. Had he been dognapped to this house of horrors merely as a snack for this huge white beast? He yelped his misery.
‘He needs a name,’ said Val, ‘you can’t keep calling him Squallocky Baby.’
We named him Biggles. You probably know that the original Biggles is a
fictional fighter pilot in the stories by Captain WE Johns, so you may be
thinking that we chose that name because there was something about our puppy’s
appearance that suggested aviation. There wasn’t. All our dogs have had names
beginning with B. But whilst his name was quite literally plucked out of the
air the really strange thing is that over the years our Biggles has gradually
acquired distinct rings around his eyes like the goggles of a WW1 flying ace.
Biggles doesn’t look the slightest bit like Poppy, being the spit and image of his dad. When I’m asked what breed he is I say he’s an Aspull Terrier, a rare species from my family’s Lancashire village, whilst Val, who disapproves of my teasing the unwary, describes him as ‘a sort of Jack Russell’.
Biggles loves to be on the go. From the moment Boris accepted him, he was eager to join in our morning rambles over the hills. His little legs need four steps to match each of the big dog’s long strides, but he never seems to tire.
For Biggles, the main function of any human being is to entertain a dog. Sit down on the patio with a book and three seconds later a ball will drop at your feet. When I throw the ball he will catch it every time, often setting off before it has left my hand and turning his head to take it out of the air while it is still behind him. The only exception is when I throw it badly and the ball goes over the wall and into the campo when he loudly reproaches my incompetence until I retrieve it or supply another ball.
We absolutely knew two dogs were ideal company and three would be a crowd, but Bella gazed imploringly into my eyes as we sat at lunch outside our village bar. The Boris-Biggles nexus had been established for seven years, and whilst the terrier welcomed a young sparring partner, Boris’s aristocratic nose remained at a disdainful angle of forty-five degrees for the first two days after the newcomer arrived.
But Bella adored Boris on sight, and literally kissed him into submission. Having been a street dog, she remembers hard times and her morals are a little suspect. From the roast cooling on the hob to the loose covers on the sofas nothing edible, or indeed inedible, is safe. She’s grown into a leggy young beauty, tall enough to sweep the goodies off the kitchen worktop and onto the floor where they can be shared with her accomplices. Jos, our Tyneside treasure, calls them Boris and the Delinquents.
Our den has two sofas and a big tub chair which Boris has made his own. When we sit there in the evening Bella likes to lean with her head on my shoulder and gaze adoringly into my eyes, so I have to peer round her head to watch TV. I tell her she’s my polola, the Chilean word for girlfriend. Biggles detests this sentimentality. Suddenly, he bounds out of the room in a frenzy of barking and when Bella rushes after him to the front door to investigate the ‘emergency’. It works every time.
soon after moving into El Cortijo del Rector, we returned from our weekly
shopping to find a strange car parked right on the bend below our parking space
and all but blocking the access, so it was only with some difficulty that I
managed to squeeze past it. Clearly some debris must have rattled against the
other car because a minute later, crossing the terrace to empty the ash pan of
the wood-burning stove, I heard the scream of a car
engine from the era below.
Looking over the wall I saw that the driver of the strange car had backed his vehicle close up to ours and, with the handbrake full on was, spraying it with gravel.
‘What on earth is he doing?’ asked José el Vecino who happened to be passing.
‘He’s trying to damage my car,’ I replied.
And I held out the heavy steel ash pan over the roof of the aggressor’s vehicle four metres below. With a rapid reverse turn, the idiot screamed off down the camino, and we all breathed a deep sigh of relief and hoped that would be the end of the incident.
‘Who the hell was that?’ I asked José.
‘That was your neighbour Paco’s son-in-law Manolo.’
Several weeks later, in the small hours of the madrugada, we were startled awake by what seemed to be a series of explosions sounding quite near to the house. The dogs, of course, went crazy Biggles’s high yelp counterpointing Boris’s deep bass. Eventually, the racket subsided, and we decided that local teenagers had been having fun with fireworks and went back to sleep.
Leaving the house the following morning, I discovered that all the windows of our car had been smashed and a brand-new set of tyres slashed to shreds. The vehicles of two expatriate neighbours, one British, one Belgian, had also been vandalized.
‘Have you had a row with anybody who might have been nursing a grudge?’
The Guardia Civil officer asked the obvious question and, like a total gobbin, I said ‘No’. We like to keep peace with our neighbours and surely a slight misunderstanding over a bit of gravel couldn’t lead to this raging resentment and wholesale destruction? In any case, more cars than ours had been destroyed and nobody in his right mind would smash up the cars of people with whom he had no quarrel.
During the next week or so, vague rumours circulated about a xenophobic gang, bent on driving us foreigners out of the valley, and our neighbours Paco and Graciela kindly offered us the use of their garage just to be on the safe side.
‘Mind you,’ said Graciela, ‘I don’t believe this stuff about hassling foreigners. The same thing, only worse, happened to the father of Manolo, our son-in-law, and he’s Spanish.
‘The criminals drove a tractor along the street where he lives and smashed up all the vehicles including Manolo’s dad’s car.’
‘So, our vandal couldn’t have been Manolo,’ I said later to José el Vecino. ‘He’d never stoop to that kind of thing if it had happened to his own father.’
José regarded me pityingly: ‘A while ago, Manolo’s father lent him quite a lot of money on condition that the loan would be repaid by a certain date. When it became clear that Manolo had no intention of repaying it, the father threatened to take legal action. The following night, the father’s car was rammed with a stolen tractor, together with all those others, no doubt with the idea of putting the Guardia onto a false scent.
‘The same ploy somebody used when our car was vandalized.’
‘Exactly the same. And he’s got away with that kind of thing at least three other times, to my certain knowledge.’
Though I’m perfectly content with my trusty old Ford, I’ll happily spend half an hour browsing any used car lot. A while back, I was intrigued to come across an elderly police cruiser for sale, still in its original paintwork, though of course with the insignia removed.
‘Don’t even think about it,’ said Val, ‘we have quite enough junk cluttering up the old homestead.’
But I know somebody eventually gave the old cop car a home because I later saw it several times in and around the pueblo.
At a bend in
the lonely road eastwards across the sierras, there is a big pig farm on a low
hill, with a very smelly slurry pit below. I’m told that this road was used
each weekday on his way to and from work by Manolo the car smasher. Manolo’s
working day began very early, and one misty Monday morning, soon after dawn,
there was a parked car, painted in familiar green and white livery, blocking
the narrow roadway below the farm.
Three muscular men, in khaki pants and brown leather jackets, stood with folded arms at the roadblock, but it was only after Manolo had come to a halt and switched off the engine, that he realized that the green and white car was not carrying the Guardia Civil insignia.
That slurry pit is very deep, and local folklore has it that neither Manolo nor his car has been seen since that day. I can’t absolutely swear that this part of the story is true, but I can certainly vouch for the fact it’s quite a few years since he was seen anywhere near El Cortijo del Rector.