In good company

On one very special corner of my shelf, my novel stands beside books by some of the talented writers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing personally.

Alice Jolly and Colette Paul taught the wonderful Arvon course that started me on the journey to taking my writing seriously.

Nora Anne Brown, a lovely fellow student on the Bath Spa M.A. in Creative Writing, won the Lightship First Chapter Prize with this novel.

Kate Henriques, Joanne Sefton and Emma Smith Barton, three of the most talented students on the M.A., shared with me in several tutor groups, and became valued friends and critics of my work.

Michelle Lawson was my indefatigable colleague at North Devon College and has remained a good friend.

Together these books make up a wonderful sampler of contemporary women’s writing. 

Colette’s Whoever you Choose to Love is a collection of poignant but subversive short stories that mingle high and low culture. 

In Dead Babies and Seaside Towns Alice gives a beautifully written but heart-rending account of her journey through miscarriage, IVF and attempts at adoption to a more unorthodox route to a second child. 

Nora’s novel The Flower Plantation is about the friendship of two children in war-torn Rwanda, and springs from her own deep love of Africa. 

Kate blends fact and fiction in The Fat Girl in the Kitchen, an imaginative recreation of the life of her inspiring but infuriating Australian grandmother.

Michelle, in A House at the End of the Track, draws on her linguistic expertise and immense energy to delve beneath the romantic veneer of English incomers in a remote corner of France. 

Joanne’s skilfully written and meticulously researched psychological thriller If They Knew keeps you guessing until its unsettling conclusion.

Emma’s YA novel The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, about the psychotic breakdown of a teenage girl, is utterly convincing and unexpectedly uplifting, and far too good for older readers to miss.

Most of these novels have benefitted from traditional publishers, but a couple were self-published, and one was crowd-funded. Together they showcase the wealth of talent that modern publishing opportunities have brought to light. Seven super books from seven inspiring writers!

La gota fria

Ruth Larrea Author

La gota fria*. How strange to describe a deluge as a cold drop, I thought when I first heard the term. Was it Spanish irony, or a lack of logic? My husband couldn’t clarify. He’s always lived in his head, not in the world outside.

We’d just moved back to Spain and I was cooking a spaghetti bolognese when its simmer sank to stillness in the saucepan. The butano had run out. No spare. No car to go and buy one. The rain pelting down, the wind howling. Desperate, we phoned a cousin, who came at once. Spanish families are like that. He drove us through a downpour from one garage to another. Sold out. Fear of the gota fria had caused a stampede.

At last, wet and weary, we found somewhere that had one. Back in the kitchen, the spag bol began to bubble again. That was when I…

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La gota fria

La gota fria*. How strange to describe a deluge as a cold drop, I thought when I first heard the term. Was it Spanish irony, or a lack of logic? My husband couldn’t clarify. He’s always lived in his head, not in the world outside.

We’d just moved back to Spain and I was cooking a spaghetti bolognese when its simmer sank to stillness in the saucepan. The butano had run out. No spare. No car to go and buy one. The rain pelting down, the wind howling. Desperate, we phoned a cousin, who came at once. Spanish families are like that. He drove us through a downpour from one garage to another. Sold out. Fear of the gota fria had caused a stampede.

At last, wet and weary, we found somewhere that had one. Back in the kitchen, the spag bol began to bubble again. That was when I remembered that the oven was electric. We could have used that and saved all the trouble.

Now, seven years later, the gota fria has struck again. Red alert throughout the province. Torrential storms, whole towns flooded, cars washed away, people drowned.

Our stretch of coast is in a wide open bay and relatively untouched. Dramatic lightning flashes and thunderclaps, winds whipping up the sand, rain lashing down, soaking into the parched ground, covering the salt marshes. Birds have come to drink again. Plants that were dying might flower next spring. The reservoirs, desperately low, might fill.

Nature has reclaimed the beach, so long tamed for tourists. Wild waves roll in, bringing debris from sea bed: stones and weeds, plastic buckets and bottles, polystyrene and fishing nets. The water sweeps away the board walks, digs channels that spread mud and sand over the promenade. Council machines and workers with spades begin to scrape it into huge piles.

On TV the meteorologists explain the phenomenon.

It occurs particularly in eastern Spain and the Balearic Islands, usually at the end of the summer, when a cold front from the north collides with warm, humid air coming in from the Med (26C in September), generating storms and torrential rainfall. Meteorologists use it as a popular term, because on their charts the cold air is shown as surrounded by closed isotherms, often in the shape of a drop.

*la gota = the drop/drip (noun) not to drop/ fall (verb)

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The mistakes of youth and the follies of old age!

Did you ever make mistakes when you were young? Rosie did. Years later she tried to put them right, but found it wasn’t that easy.

You can read her story in ‘Fragments of a Dream’

Set on the beautiful Greek island of Hydra, it will make you laugh, cry and reflect on life’s complexities!

Dolor y Gloria

A fascinating interview on TVE this week with Pedro Almodovar about his latest film, Dolor y Gloria, thought to be his most autobiographical yet.

The story draws on events from his formative years.

‘I had to look into the darkest part of myself,’ he said.

‘Although it starts from myself, as I was writing, it transformed into fiction.’

Yes! That’s what I love in novels, too. Stories that grow out of the writer’s experience of life, yet evolve their own reality.

You can keep all your fantasies and thrillers with their cleverly contrived plots. What move me most are stories that sink their roots deep into real-life events, yet stretch their branches towards the sky.

Elena Ferrante? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Tim Winton?

In my own small way I, too, love to weave fact and fiction in my writing, and find it uniquely fulfilling.

As Almodovar says, ‘Writing is the only therapy to forget the unforgettable.’

Pain and glory, indeed.

The immigrant, the bank clerk and the old lady

I’m at my Spanish bank, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, alone behind a glass screen, or the one for the gestor, who sits at a desk and deals personally with customers’ accounts? I’m not sure, so I hover between the two, trying to see which moves faster.

Yesterday, in a different part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already stood for ages in one long line, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what I should do. I must have raised my voice, because several people, waiting patiently, swung round to look at me. 

It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch to collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old card gave up the ghost. With blood pressure rising, and already weary from other bureaucratic nightmares, I steeled myself to accept that this was one more of those mysterious Spanish norms I hadn’t yet mastered.

So here I am today, waiting my turn and trying not to get rattled while clients in front of me deal with their transactions — mostly payment of bills which surely they could arrange by direct debit — when the silence is broken by an angry outburst. We all look up. A young man is letting rip in a torrent of broken Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has stood for half an hour, first in the queue for the cajero automatico, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.

From behind his glass screen the bank employee, looking pale and frazzled, tries to explain the reasons for this problem and why he’s not authorised to deal with it, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. The dozen or so other customers, all Spanish, standing in line or resting in comfortable armchairs, are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, aware that this could so easily have been me, exploding with frustration in front of an audience. I feel relieved, restored. It’s as though the young man has taken all my pent-up exasperation and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else. 

Despite this I’m uneasy. Because the young man is black. Everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even more riddled with errors than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the ageing employee with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I cringe for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own powers of expression have cracked up in offices with regulations as absurd as anything Gulliver encountered in Lilliput. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am retired, one of the tribe of ex-pats who help prop up this country’s economy. He is a survivor, almost certainly African. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve heard about since the Brexit referendum in England, with insults and calls to go back where you came from? 

I glance at the other patrons of the bank, middle-aged, middle-class, prosperous, wondering how they will react. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment. 

The young man is not calm. He is clearly distressed. His voice rises and wavers with emotion as he accuses the teller of treating him differently. He keeps repeating: 

‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant you don’t help me!’

At this point the woman in front of me steps towards him, tentatively, respectfully. She is old, even older than me, well-dressed, well-groomed and no doubt well-off. Gently, politely, she speaks to the young man. She explains that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else who comes to this bank. The clerk is only following instructions. Yes, they, the Spanish, think that the rules are ridiculous, too, but there are protocols and protocols have to be followed, and everyone has to put up with them, like them or not.

The young man is appeased. His anger begins to fade. Another employee appears, summoned by telephone, and goes with him to the machine to help with his transaction.

The woman rejoins the queue and we strike up a conversation about how hard it is for foreigners to navigate Spanish bureaucracy. I say that it often seems bizarre and illogical and she agrees.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think we are like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills.’

I’m amused, it’s so true, and I nod in admiration. How deftly she’s defused the tension. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have panned out in Brexit Britain.

Locked in with the locksmith

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‘Get the lock changed,’ my brother-in-law said. ‘And fix a new security bolt as well since you’ve lost the key.’

Times are hard, and this place has been robbed before, even if they did only take a pile of old blankets. But a poor pensioner with a sick spouse can’t afford to lose the little she has.

I prepare the new vocabulary so I can call the locksmith. Bombin is the lock, cerrojo FAC the security bolt. Never a lover of telephones, I brace myself to explain what I want in Spanish. Serves me right for forcing my ESOL students to make all those phone calls in their speaking exams, I suppose.

After just one ring, I’m through. ‘Of course,’ says a very nice woman, politely overlooking the fact that I’ve said bombon (sweet) instead of bombin. ‘I’ll send the chico. If he can’t do it, my husband will come.’ Like many here it’s a family business, cousins, aunts, brothers, all playing their part.

I give her my address, being careful to pronounce numbers and letters correctly. How well I remember the Spanish students who tripped up on English vowels. It’s hardly surprising when the English letter ‘A’ sounds like the Spanish ‘E’ and the English ‘E’ like the Spanish ‘I’.

But my rendering of ‘E’ doesn’t convince her.

‘English or Spanish?’ she asks.

‘Spanish, Spanish,’ I say, and we laugh. With thousands of British ex-pats living on the costas, she’s clearly come up against this problem before.

We agree a day and a time. Right on the dot, the chico arrives, toolbox in hand, muscles rippling, beaming a beautiful smile.

Communication is fine. We discuss what he should do and he sets to work, removing a long screw from the existing lock. At this point he realises that he hasn’t brought a vital part.

‘I’ll be back in a moment,’ he says and goes out, shutting the door behind him.

A few minutes later I hear his footsteps coming up the steps. He knocks at the door and I go to let him in. The handle won’t turn. I wriggle it this way and that, but without the screw nothing moves.

‘The door won’t open,’ I say.

‘What? It won’t open?’

I try again. Nothing.

‘I’ll pass the key under the door and see if you can unlock it from outside,’ I say.

But he can’t.

‘If I had my tools here,’ he says, ‘I could do it.’

But his tools are on the floor beside me, and there’s no way those will go through the small gap.

Now this is a dilemma that I hadn’t foreseen. I’m locked inside my own flat, with the tool-less locksmith outside.

‘Is there another way in?’ he calls to me.

‘Only through the window. And it’s rather high up.’

I cross to the balcony, slide open the window, and the chico’s head appears below me.

‘Oh, I can get up there,’ he says confidently.

‘Are you sure? I don’t have a ladder.’

I have clearly underestimated him. Even before I finish speaking, his hands grip the rail, his head appears, his shoulders and his torso, and he propels himself inside and onto the floor. Now I know what those muscles are for.

‘Blimey,’ I say, ‘if you can do it, than so can a burglar.’ Mental note: remember to shut all windows when you go out.

Inside, with his tools, he changes the lock in no time and – hey presto! – the door opens.

One job done. Now to the security bolt.

‘Since you’ve lost the key,’ he says, ‘I’ll need to order a new cerrojo FAC. So I’ll come back on Tuesday.’

Sod’s law, I suppose. Not long after he’s gone, we discover we’ve got the key after all. Never mind, we’ll change it anyway, just to be sure.

Of course it might all be a waste of time. If there’s anyone else around who combines the skills of a locksmith with those of a cat-burglar, all the locks in the world won’t save us. Better get that insurance policy sorted.