Friday, 27 April 2012

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

Dad’s opium was the television.  When they first arrived in Spain someone gave them an old portable black and white set, and in due course they purchased a large colour one.  Dad kept the old black and white one going on the lower shelf of a small trolley he kept by his armchair, out of sight of my mother.  This enabled him to  scan the Spanish channels and look at the pretty Spanish presenters, or see snatches of a spicy film – all on mute of course.  Mum pretended she never noticed what he was doing while they watched the main television, but I’m sure she was aware – she knew him too well.
The two televisions - the main one is switched on, and
by the armchair is the little trolley with the portable
b+w one underneath, and on top the radio to listen to

Then Sky television came along, and he loved it.  At last he could watch sports to his heart’s content.  He overcame the trifle of it being in Spanish when he preferred English, by illegally subscribing to the British service giving my address in the UK.  Sky never checked up on this, though they must have been puzzled that if he had a problem I would ring for him and never pass the telephone through to him because he was ‘out’ or ‘too old to come to the phone’. 
It became embarrassing when he decided to subscribe to the Adult Channel and there were teething problems at first.  I had to lie to the sceptical engineer on the phone that my father couldn’t receive any signal but that they couldn’t talk to him personally because he was too ‘old’ and ‘confused’.  I’m sure he wondered about the customer who wanted adult TV but was too confused to come to the phone...  In the end it was more trouble than it was worth.  Dad said that it didn’t start till midnight, and what with the time difference in Spain they were an hour ahead, and he just couldn’t stay awake till 1 a.m…
John and Dad, lying on his bed, with Vicky on his knee.
Listening to cricket on the radio.
(Please note the wallpaper was the taste of
the previous owners of the house!)

Mum had inherited a magnificent light oak grandfather clock which her mother remembered being in the house where she had grown up in the village of Bell Ville, province of Córdoba, Argentina, in the late 1800’s, all that was left now of a former dining-room suite with table, chairs and dresser.  It had – or has – a rich booming chime on the hour and the half hour, two notes per chime (G and B), the second being the louder:  G B, G B…. it reminded me of the first two notes of the old song in the round -
“London’s burning,
 London’s burning,
Draw nearer, draw nearer,
Fire fire! … Fire fire!
And we have no water…”

My mother grew up to this sound, and then my sister and myself – always gonging it’s way into our ears to tell us we were late for something or other. 
While they lived in Spain the clock had pride of place in the reception area which was used as a sitting room and dining-room… and was therefore near the television. 

My father claimed he was so used to it that he no longer heard it, but it seemed to me that we watched television during the times when it would chime the most – 7 o’clock, 8’clock… and up to midnight.  Bang-BONG! Bang-BONG! Bang-BONG!  This was of course always when the punch line was being delivered by a comedian, Poirot would be about to reveal the murderer, the lovers had finally, FINALLY overcome all the impossible obstacles and were alone about to tell each other something..., or the quizmaster would be telling you the answer to the question which you thought you knew and the contestant plainly didn’t.  It drove me insane.  And yet I love that old clock; it's in the family still.

At heart Mum disapproved strongly not only of the television but of my father’s computer too, I suspect because they took him into another world where intrusion was not welcome.  After he died she neatly covered both with washed and freshly ironed teacloths, and they were never looked at again.
Just as dogs follow their owners, cats purr when you scratch them behind their ears and birds have no consideration or interest whatsoever as to where their droppings will  fall, it is an immutable fact of nature and stamped in our DNA that daughters will find their fathers embarrassing as from teenage years and forever after.  No matter how their fathers look, what they do or how hard said progenitors’ efforts are to gain pride and acceptance from their female children, it is written that the blood vessels around the facial area and neck of said offspring will be doomed to regular outings when they are in public together, no matter how fond they are of him.

So it was – sigh – with Dad.  He was a warm, charming man liked by all, with a twinkle in his eye and a well of jokes of all colours and all tastes, and God help us, not a self-conscious bone in his body (or he kept it well hidden - and paradoxically he would probably have been embarrassed reading this).   We knew some of his tricks of old, yet neither my sister nor myself ever managed to stop ourselves from shifting uncomfortably in our chairs when he trotted them out. 
At dinner parties for example he had two expressions he adored – goodness knows where he got them from, but the hostesses loved them.  At the end of the meal he would say to her, bowing low -

“Madam, your culinary efforts are only excelled by your charm” -

which would be received with a coy giggle and a flutter of eyelashes from her, and a despairing glance skywards from my sister and me. 

The other expression was inevitably produced when he was asked if he wanted a second helping -

“I have had an elegant sufficiency; any more would be a superfluity and render obnoxious that of which I have already partaken.”
But this was standard stuff compared to the occasions when we ate out at restaurants, from my teenage years and all over Argentina right up to his eighties when my parents were living in Spain and we would all go out for a meal at a Spanish fonda.  This man with the impeccable manners at dinner parties saw no conflict in employing the same hastening tactics with waiters as he had used in transport cafés in Buenos Aires way back when he was eating in a hurry before going back to work.  If they took too long to bring his meal Dad would wave his arms at them and tap his watch, then spread his hands with a winning smile and – in an atmosphere where other diners were eating quietly - call out the equivalent of “Hey chief, what’s the problem?”  (Che Jefe, qué pasa?”).  I admit my embarrassment would manifest itself as anger towards him, and I regret that now, but I just could not cope with it. 
The worst times were when he had worked out that the waitresses were Italian – a common occurrence in both Argentina and Spain – and he would do his non-linguist versions of the two phrases he knew well.  The astonished pretty Italian girls didn’t know what to make of these pronouncements, uttered as they were placing food before us –
“I peccati d'amore sono tutti perdonati”
(the sins of love are all forgiven),
“Il matrimonio è una battaglia nella quale si dorme col nemico”
(marriage is a battle where you sleep with the enemy)
– both of which came from fancy ashtrays we had at home.  By this stage my sister or I would have our heads in our hands.
Spending a couple of weeks with Mum and Dad in summer or winter generally involved a very pleasant evening with the Nobles next door, who were generous to a fault and charmingly hospitable.  While Noli prepared wonderful paellas in her metre-wide paella dish, Nico particularly liked to ply us with the well known wines of his native town of Requena, and bring out some rare liqueurs which he kept in his drinks cupboard.  Dad and my partner John never said no, but John held his drink better.  It didn’t take much for my parents to become quite squiffy and start to sing, and I would watch with dread as I recognised the signs. 
Egged on by Noli who enjoyed their singing as much as my reaction, they would work their way through the dozen or so well-known Argentine patriotic songs very familiar to all schoolchildren, who would have had to sing them during music lessons, practice them in the school breaks and sing them formally in assembly when the national flag was raised, or on celebration days when there were ceremonies in honour of anniversaries of historical events or the birth of a national hero.  They usually had a marching rhythm, which my parents would helpfully demonstrate by shaping their hands into fists and moving their elbows backwards and forwards in unison, like the connecting rods on a steam locomotive.  Noli and Nico would look at them, then look at me, and scream with laughter.  The singing would continue as we said goodnight and staggered back next door in the cool, otherwise silent night.

Dad was no great cook, confining himself to toast and fried peanuts (when we were little you could only buy shelled peanuts), and I hasten to add not both at the same time.  Later in life he mastered the microwave for simple things, and his mother's ancient marmalade recipe, which he and Mum made together.  The Marmalade Marathon would take place in the new year, when they would drive to a village nearby which had bitter Seville orange trees growing on the sidewalk and were free to all. 

Once home, the fruit would be subjected to a medieval instrument of torture, a prized possession of my grandmother's dating from the twenties which was black and threatening looking, like a cross between a mincer and thumbscrews.  It tore the flesh and skin to pieces in a most aggressive manner when you turned the handle, but turned out very satisfactory lumps which as marmalade you later spread on your toast.  Following arguments about weighing in imperial or metric and the use of copious quantities of paper with scribbled sums involving volume, weight and time required for the soaking of the pips for the pectin, the first cooking of the fruit and the second cooking with the sugar, the stuff bubbled away in cauldrons hovered over by the two anxious cooks. 

"It's ready."

"No it's not, the pectin hasn't had time to work yet."

"But it's going to burn and go all dark - remember you did that last year."

"That was because you should have been watching it, I wasn't well."

The secret was to have small plates cooling in the fridge, which would be brought out when the time was judged to be right, and samples of the boiling marmalade dripped on to a fresh one every few minutes, to see if 'a skin had formed'.

"It's not a skin I tell you."

"Yes it is, look how I can trail it with the spoon".

"I think it should carry on boiling for a bit."

"It's already been on twenty minutes".

"OK have it your way, but it'll be your fault if it's like soup."

"And your fault if it tastes like soup."

The good times became few and far between after a winter’s day when during an unusually fierce downpour sections of the roof all round the house caved in and the house was flooded.  They were on their own at the time, but six wonderfully kind neighbours came to their help with squeegees and floor mops; over several hours they cleared away the swirling muddy water and set up plastic tubs to catch the rain falling through the various holes in the ceiling.  Eventually it was all repaired, but to save money they had not insured the property or the contents, so it was also a financial blow to them.
The real damage however was to their morale, particularly my father’s, who was terribly distressed by it all and it is possible that it may have triggered the Parkinsons disease to which he succumbed the following year.  Mum just got on with things in her practical way, carefully segregating the books which had been damaged and propping them up (open) all over the house, and once a day doing the rounds turning all the pages to help in the drying process – a bizarre sight when you visited.
Dad had enjoyed sorting out his papers and his books in a particular sequence of his choosing years before, and up until that point had known where everything was.  Now he had to start from scratch, and everything was water stained.  It was heartbreaking to see.
After he died, every time my sister or I visited my mother we would take advantage of our stay there to help her sort through her things, decide what to give or throw away and so on.  One hot afternoon I tackled the paellero, the humbler version of what the Nobles had in their back garden for cooking paellas al fresco, but with the difference that this one was properly enclosed and had only ever been used as a store room.  Both my parents had been the sort of people who had lived through lean times when you recycled what you could and kept any unlikely object just in case you could use it somewhere.  In a corner of the paellero Dad had made columns of drawers from some long gone dressing table, inside which were neatly stacked and labelled old plugs, sockets, wires, cables and an amazing large assortment of taps of every shape and description.
I was both stunned and moved to see it all, fresh as I was from sorting out his home-made lean-to open shed the day before, which I had found choc full of jars of every shape and size, filled to the brims with carefully sorted nails, screws and bolts.  Thus he had brought order to his life years before he had become too infirm to be able to do so, or indeed to care, and it was painful to have to classify it as junk and throw it away.
When my mother eventually moved to Britain to live with us my sister took care of the disposal of the house and the contents which were no longer required, an enormous job.  The house was sold to two men who were designers, and over the next year or so they transformed the house from the unlovely concrete building that it was into a futuristic concrete building with minimalist décor and plenty of white walls and aluminium surfaces.  It appeared in decorating magazines and was runner up in a local television competition for makeovers.  Noli has suggested many times that I might like to see how it looks now, but I am not brave enough to do so.
There were both happy and sad times, but overall they have left me with a better knowledge of and an enormous affection for Spanish people and their culture.  I will never forget those bittersweet years.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Requena, Nico Noble's home town



Coral Wild said...

Such haunting memories Caroline - and it's wonderful that you can get them down in writing.
I am sure that your family will treasure these.....

Lonicera said...

Thanks Sue - I sometimes wonder whether I'm writing all this down because I enjoy it or bcause I want the great nephews and nieces to know it. Time will tell I guess.

Joyful said...

You've given such a great description of your mother and father that I feel I've met them. Memories are precious things.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny! I so enjoyed writing it.

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