Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Tales from Elsewhere - The Spanish Villa - (2 of 3)

On the urbanización where my parents spent their retire-ment near Valencia in Spain (above), there were no sewage pipes so each house had its own cesspit (pozo negro, or black hole), the cause of regular dramas.  About once a year these would have to be emptied, and a tanker with huge hoses would lumber up to the gate.  For the next hour or two we became pariahs as the air turned thick with the stench of human waste, and all friends and neighbours kept well clear of us. 
Some days it seemed my father thought of little else.
“You women, always washing and flushing...” he would mutter as he paced up and down the corridor.  “The pozo negro is getting full, you don’t need to run so much water...  why do you need to wash your hair every single day?”
When friends and relations came to stay his neurosis would increase.  The lid of the hellhole was unfortunately positioned outside quite near to the window of the guest bathroom and no doubt they could hear the clank of the cover and his ominous muttering as with wrinkled nose he lifted the lid and peered anxiously within.  To our great embarrassment he would then warn disconcerted guests who thought they were safe in the toilet by calling through the locked door that they shouldn’t use too much water because the pozo negro might overflow. 
The anxiety was catching and as we contemplated the prospect of this awful occurrence, our imaginations would go into overdrive.  It took years of this routine before I learned to ignore it.
But in July when the fig tree was full of ripe fruit and they were so sweet and juicy that you couldn’t help but stand there gorging yourself, you inevitably found yourself spending more time in that particular room of the house than you might have wished, and if you were a first time guest, you would have been curious to note the old post-it notes stuck to the mirror and maybe were too polite to ask why they were there, putting it down to the family’s eccentricities.
They remained clinging to the mirror for almost the whole of their 15 year sojourn in Spain.  My mother was anxious that guests should be aware that the tap water was not for drinking. She had therefore put up a notice on a yellow post-it note, helpfully advising us in both English and Spanish large capital letters –
The Spanish version said – and it translates well:

To which someone had added underneath
 “...  wait for it to stand still”...                 (esperar hasta que se pare...)
... and another guest had added later
 “... or sit down.”                                       (...o se siente)

The English post-it note originally said:
Someone had added a comma and a few words at the end, which made the sign now read –
Childish stuff perhaps, but it amused my parents no end, and they left the two post-its there for the duration.  The ink gradually faded as did the yellow paper, which curled at the edges and the glue became ineffective as it acquired more dust – but they would not take them down.   Remembering an entry in the ‘Humor in Uniform’ section of a sixties’ copy of Reader’s Digest which my father quoted for years, where a senior army man had put a sign on the recruits’ bathroom mirror which said “THINK!”, to which a new soldier responded by putting another sign further down with an arrow pointing down and to the right, on which he wrote “THOAP!”, I should not have been surprised that he enjoyed this little exchange.
From time to time there was further entertainment to be found in the bathroom.  Reminiscent of elephants remembering their ancient route across the savannah, when recently erected villages in its way were merely an obstacle to be trampled through, the ants in the house had a collective memory relayed in their genes down the generations, and every year or two you could watch an impressive procession of ants making their way determinedly across the china in the kitchen cupboard, through an infinitesimal hole in the wall and into the bathroom, proceeding from right to left along the edge of the bathtub, climbing perilously to the window, and disappearing to the exterior of the building through some further invisible hole.  No attempts to deal with them had the slightest effect, and as they marched across the bathtub they probably regarded people having a shower as a mere annoyance. 

Another cohort had more suicidal tendencies, as they proceeded single file from one end of the swimming pool to the other, under the rim.  My partner John, easily entertained, could be found hour after hour hunched over them trying to follow where they went…
For us of course the swimming pool was a blessed relief in the scorching summer months, and it enabled my mother to have regular exercise in comfort.  The job of keeping it properly chlorinated fell to my father, who enjoyed scooping up samples, testing them, calculating how much chlorine was required and mixing it in afterwards.  The local feral cats didn’t seem to mind drinking this powerful cocktail, and we made sure we never got in during this procedure. 

As the years went by however and Dad became increasingly unsteady on his feet, he lost interest in the endless demands of a sparkling swimming pool, and Mum wasn’t too bothered – as a young girl in rural Argentina she had been quite used to swimming in Australian tanks where water for cattle troughs was stored and you could find yourself sweeping the slime aside as you swam, making sure you kept your mouth well closed.  So what if the water was slightly less than jewel turquoise?  But Noli observed this with horror through the hedge next door, and took action without their knowledge.  I don’t think they ever knew that she would lob chlorine tablets over the fence – quite a feat for a five foot little lady and a 12 foot pine tree hedge followed by a distance of some 15 ft (5 metres) to the pool's edge.
There were many feral cats in the area, with no attempt at neutering them, and I inevitably fell in love with a succession of adorable kittens over the years.  Mum always had a scientific curiosity about animals, but except for certain special dogs which had entered and exited her life at various points, she never allowed herself to get sentimental about them, particularly cats.  She refused to feed any of them, and it had to be recognised that it would have been an all day job, for there were so many beautiful felines struggling to survive.  

Dad was different though, and one feral young cat which was braver than most and ventured into the house when my mother was out, won his heart, and he started sneaking food to her whenever he could.  He called her Vicky, and she was indeed a gorgeous creature.  By the time Mum realised what was going on it was too late, and Dad got stubborn about it; so it was that Vicky achieved the unheard of luxury of being accepted into the household. 


She knew who her friends were though – Dad was the only person to whom she would go and by whom she allowed herself to be stroked, and whose lap was in constant demand.  I consider myself to be as irresistible to cats as humans are ever likely to be.  I know the gentleness and quiet voice they like, not looking them in the eye, and about being generally soothing and non-threatening – but with Vicky I got absolutely nowhere.  She only had eyes for Dad.
It was a sad fact of life however that getting her to a far off vet was just not possible, and a conjunctivitis she picked up when no one in the family was around except them, meant that she went virtually blind, and we heard later that she picked up another infection that caused Dad to ask a neighbour to take her away and  have her put down.  He grieved for a long time and thereafter left the feral cats well alone.

(To be continued. 
Next time - why daughters feel embarrassed by their fathers...)

Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands



Joyful said...

I enjoyed this second installment of your story very much. There is humour and sadness in it, like life often is for us.

Lonicera said...

Thank you very much Penny - it has all been written with great affection and nostalgia, because I loved visiting them and enjoying Spain.

Coral Wild said...

I'm really enjoying this tale Caroline. Thank you:)

Lonicera said...


Wonderful - comment much appreciated!


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