Thursday, 10 January 2013

La Honoria - Part Two (of two)

Clearly I had been gone from Argentina too long, for there were other horrors to face, and my reactions were just as limp.
As I walked down the dimly lit polished tile corridor one evening I saw a black blurr right in front of me.  I leapt back in alarm, which is just as well, because it was a large black tarantula with hairy legs which had obviously lost its way.  Unnerved by the large screaming human it scuttled hither and thither, making this human scream even louder.  But at least on that occasion I had somewhere to run to. 

Shortly afterwards I was having a shower in the Beatrix Potter bathroom and minding my own business when I happened to glance up at the showerhead as I rinsed my hair (as you do) and there on the wall behind was the tarantula’s younger brother or sister, just two feet above the suds on my head.  If the water had suddenly run cold I wouldn’t have noticed, frozen as I was with horror and by the knowledge that the creature and I were going to have to get along for the extra few minutes it would take to finish washing and turn off the taps.  To run screaming for the towel at that point was not an option.  I don’t know how I did it, but my eyeballs never moved away from it as I went through the motions; in fact I’m sure I didn’t blink.
I slept in an attractive room where I could keep both door and windows open at night to keep cool with the through-breeze.  I had the inner verandah on one side, enclosed by mosquito screens, and the outer verandah on the other side, where the windows similarly protected me from mosquitoes.  One night I noticed that the dogs weren’t making their usual snuffly whiny sounds as they settled down on the outer verandah to sleep, and someone commented that they had been out earlier in the day with the riders herding cattle, and on their way back had been left behind sniffing about for skunks.
I fell asleep immediately in the quiet of the night with the singing crickets for company, but was awoken some time later coughing and choking – to the most appalling stench I have ever experienced.  It was as if something had grabbed me by the throat, and I gasped for air.  And then I heard the snuffly, whiny sounds, and knew straight away what had happened. 
One or more skunks had fought back with spirit in their usual way, by backing up against the perceived enemy and raising their hind quarters to emit a jet of the most evil, stinking, concentrated substance on the planet.  The dogs would have run away howling, fleeing not the little animals but the consequence of their aggression, which was now fixed to their coats for a very long time.  Falling exhaustedly on the verandah just outside my bedroom window, they were now trying to get to sleep.
I burrowed under the sheet, preferring to perspire than have nothing but polluted air between me and the dogs.  I wondered whether even the mosquitoes were staggering about.
There were of course, many compensations for the aggressive fauna.  The bird population on the farm was prolific.  Bird photography is not my strong point, and I wish I’d had longer to practice. Among others, there were magpies, pygmy owls, parrots, ibis, whistling ducks, small kestrels, spoonbill ducks, grey blue tanagers, caracaras, falcons, lapwings, plovers, warblers, woodpeckers and the ubiquitous little ovenbird.


The sticky black topsoil on the farm is the type that gardeners in England swoon over, so rich in nutrients that due to the warm climate and the rainfall it took only four months to harvest time with vegetable crops.  Michèle had a small patch in part of one of the fields where she grew marrows, melons, water melons, pumpkin, squash, globe courgettes and other large vegetables. 
While I was staying there the women and children all went to work on this soil one day, and I went along just for the ride, and to take pictures while the children played.  The black mud was so sticky that the going would get harder and harder as it oozed between their toes and caked their feet until they looked like beings with ten league boots.

...the mothers planted out the squash seedlings...

...while the children played in the mud
The downside of all this was that there were no paved roads within the property, or beyond the gate and to the village 5 kilometres away.  When it rained it was very difficult to drive into the village and it would have taken an hour to walk; when it poured the children cheered, because it was either a question of going to school on horseback or not at all.  Sometimes their father would take them all in the carricoche, a contraption he had made consisting of a large pony and trap with tyres and a cabin perched on the top, so that all seven could ride together.
The village is so small that the children at the little primary school all knew each other’s families, and it was quite common for Michèle’s children to go and play at someone else’s house after school.  There were no mobile phones then so their mother would drive into the village some time later and cruise around until someone called after her to tell her they had seen the children at so-and-so’s house, and she would head in that direction to collect them and take them home for dinner.

From one day to the next the idyll became a nightmare. 

There was only herself and her mother in the house on the winter afternoon of 24th June 2002, and she had lit the fire in the sitting-room to warm the rest of the house.  When the time came to drive to the village to collect the children from school, she noticed that her mother was looking groggy, and concerned in case she had taken a double dose of her tablets by mistake, decided at the last minute to take her along with her, and they travelled the few kilometres to the school together in the car. 

On the way back with the children they stopped at the silos, where her husband had an office.  As she was looking at some paperwork she glanced out of the window across the fields and was puzzled by a curl of smoke in the distance.  She wondered who was burning stubble in their fields, and as they drove back she saw one of the farm workers approaching them on the tractor.  Old José had no teeth whatsoever and it usually took a while to make out what he was saying, but this time there was no mistaking his words.  He pointed urgently towards the house and said simply “Your house is burning.”

Her mind racing, she tried to shut out the hubbub that erupted in the car as she concentrated on driving safely towards the house.  When they got there they all spilled out of the car and gazed in horror at the conflagration around them.  The fire had caught hold and was already out of control.  The nearest fire station was several villages away. 

Michèle ran round the house trying to gain entry where the fire had not yet caught hold to see if she could rescue anything – the priceless O’Dwyer documents dating back 800 years... her own family photographs… mementoes of her beloved father who had passed away 8 years previously… some clothes… Honor’s letters in the old biscuit tins… but it was too hot and she realised it was out of the question; she would be putting herself in danger if she tried anything brave.

She picked up a hose and cast it down again – what use was a hose in such a furnace?  She was vaguely aware of her eldest son grabbing it from her to use it in keeping down the surface temperature of a dangerously hot gas canister, and of his shouted commands telling everybody to move out of the way because the box where the ammunition for hunting guns was stored was inevitably going to overheat and set the bullets off.

As the other members of the family were summoned and kept in touch by the various people meandering about anxiously, Michèle did the only thing of which she felt capable – she sat down on the ground with her back against the trunk of a tree, lit a cigarette and watched her husband’s family home for generations and hers for the dozen years of turning it into her own, ascend in orange sparks and flying ash soaring upwards into the twilight sky. 

“Will I lose my job?” cried the housekeeper.  At that point Michèle could not bring herself to think about it or reply.  All she could think was “I’ve lost my home and all my belongings”, and kept silent.

Her husband Mick had been in Buenos Aires on business for two months when he was told.  Ever the pragmatist, he was shocked but practical.  He offered to come home, but she told him not to on her account.  She saw no reason to upset him further, and she could manage with the others to help her.

The fire brigade arrived at last two hours later, but there was little for them to do.  She somehow managed to stay serene in the presence of her worried children and distressed mother as she rounded them up briskly and put them back in the car for the drive over to their eldest son’s home for the night. 

The following day she returned and was struck afresh with grief to see twisted metal bedsteads and pieces of furniture that had somehow survived, pathetically strewn over the ground in a still gently smouldering, evil smelling, amorphous mass.  Strangely, the fireplace still had the logs nestled in it by her the afternoon before.

From then on life became a bewildering whirl of activity, and she discovered for the first time what it was really like to have absolutely no clothes except for what they had been wearing on the day of the fire.  Her eldest son was recently married and lived in his own house adjoining their property, and they lived with him and his wife until they could move to another temporary accommodation, since there was not enough room for them all.

It was painful to keep returning to hunt for things, particularly on one occasion when she came across one of the local policemen from the village and went to offer help when she realised he had a bag with him and was sifting through the ashes looking for salvageable objects he could keep for himself or sell.

The family knew that the fire must have originated from the fireplace in the sitting room despite the fact that it had been protected by a fireguard, but learned some time later that it could have been the chimney which had ignited and the fire had spread rapidly because of inadequacies in the false ceiling which had been installed some years before. 

As the garden had not been affected by the fire, Michèle drove a trailer to it one morning and with some help started to dig up every plant she had ever loved and nurtured, and over the next six months transported them with care to their interim home, the land around the silo offices from where she had first seen the smoke.  They were replanted carefully in a field, and today continue to be the same riot of colour they had been before.  Cuttings have supplied the gardens of her children’s homes since that time.

They found another job for their housekeeper.  It was decided in the end that the house would not be re-built in the same location because it had always been a time-consuming exercise to drive into the village.  There are tentative plans to build a house on the edge of the property nearest the village, but in the meantime they decided to leave their son to manage the land and they moved south to a property they owned 700 kilometres away where there was a house. 

Everything else was started from scratch.   She is a positive person, romantic yet practical at the same time.  Although this terrible event was a landmark in her life, if you ask her, Michèle – my Pollyanna friend - will tell you that no human or animal was hurt, and everything else is replaceable.  She'll just start again.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

More pictures of La Honoria



Joyful said...

What a heartbreaking story after all that work put into the place and all the family history, etc. It must have felt like quite a loss made more difficult by what the police were doing.

Matvi. said...

Great story, Caroline, and well written.

Roh.- said...

Caroline... I understand almoust everything... Pero me gusta más hablar en mi idioma jajaja. Ahora paso por tus otros blog.


Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny and Matvi. Michèle recovered remarkably, and though it was a landmark in her life, she's relaxed enough about it that she didn't mind at all whatever I wanted to include in the story - she just wanted to correct inaccuracies. I can't imagine I would have reacted like that.

Gracias Roh - la seguimos en castellano sin problema. Mi blog Dulcinea no está actualizado, pero tengo la intención de escribir más (pasa que es mucho más trabajo y me lleva más tiempo!!)


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