The immigrant, the bank teller and the old lady*

*(Written several years ago, but particularly relevant on the eve of Brexit)

I’m at my bank in Alicante, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, 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 them, waiting to see which moves faster.

Yesterday, in another part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already waited in one long queue, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what to do. I must have raised my voice, because the rest of the customers, waiting patiently, spun round to look at me.

It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch and collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old one expired. Determined to remain calm, I told myself that this was yet another of those mysterious norms about Spain which I hadn’t yet mastered.

So, here I am today, standing in the queue for the teller and trying not to get rattled while customers 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 at the teller in a torrent of street-Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has waited for half an hour, first in the queue for the machine, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.

The teller tries to explain the reasons for this, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. All the other customers are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, conscious that this could so easily have been me, exploding in front of an audience. I feel relieved, calmer, a bit smug. It’s as though this young man has taken all my frustration and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else.

But I’m also a little nervous. Because the young man is black, and everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even worse than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the teller with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I feel for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own language has faltered in frustrating bureaucratic situations. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am a white woman, a pensioner, one of the tribe of ex-pats on whom much of Spain’s prosperity hangs. He is a young black man. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve read about in post-Brexit England, with insults and calls to ‘Go back where you came from!’?

I glance at the other customers, middle-aged, middle-class, white-skinned. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment.

But the young man is not calm. He notches up the volume of his voice, and begins to accuse the teller of treating him differently because he is black and an immigrant.

He keeps repeating: ‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant that you won’t help me.’

At this point a woman in the queue 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 to him that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else. The teller 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 takes him back to the machine to help him complete his transaction.

The old woman rejoins the queue and she and I begin a conversation about the illogicality of bureaucracy.

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

I’m amused. It’s so true. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have played out in post-Brexit England.

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The novel you may never read

I designed this visual for the novel I began on the Bath Spa MA, to show where it might appear in a bookshop. Wishful thinking, I fear, but fun all the same. The working title was ‘The Third Sister’, now renamed ‘Between Two Shores.’* It’s finished, but I will NOT be self-publishing. I find it too time-consuming and expensive, and I loathe all the self-promotion. So unless some helpful agent or publisher offers me a deal, which is highly unlikely, it will moulder away on my computer.

see My Writing*

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The Mystery of the Memorial on the Cliff

At the turn of the century I taught several summer schools at Country Cousins in the North Devon seaside town of Ilfracombe. Lessons took place in in a beautiful old house behind Bicclescombe Park. The students, mainly of secondary school age, came from all over Europe to improve their English, and most of them stayed with host families nearby.

Ekaterina (or Katya as she liked to be called) was in my class of young teenagers. She was a sweet girl and a delightful student – quiet but friendly, gifted and cooperative. Her great love was dancing. I remember that she wrote about how she adored being in England and what an amazing experience it was for her.

The usual routine was for English classes in the morning and cultural visits in the afternoon. The rest of the day was free for students to do as they pleased. So, on the evening of the 19th of July, Katya and some of her new friends went for a walk up on the coast path above Ilfracombe Harbour. I have a vague memory that a sea mist came up that night, which might have obscured the edge of the cliff.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I heard of the tragic accident. Not long after they’d set out, Katya’s friends had come rushing back to say that she had fallen from the cliff. I don’t know if the inquest clarified exactly how it had happened, but the verdict was accidental death and no one else was implicated.

Over the years I had walked that stretch of the coast path many times, especially when I was writing walks leaflets for the North Devon Heritage Coast Service, so I knew it well. The cliffs are rugged and steep, bitten into by inlets and coves, but the path is clear and well signposted, although if it was misty you might lose your way. But these weren’t hikers, they were youngsters out enjoying themselves. Maybe they were having so much fun that Katya simply didn’t realise how close she was to the edge. Or was she so happy that she was dancing and lost her footing?

I was aware that Katya came from a prestigious Russian family, and as soon as they heard the news, two of her male relatives flew straight over. As her teacher, I was asked to meet them and show them some of her work.They had already been in contact with the Russian Embassy in London, and arranged for her body to be flown back for burial. I believe she was taken on a government plane to Moscow, where the Orthodox funeral took place.

My memory is a little vague, but I think that the following summer, her mother and aunt visited North Devon. They donated an icon and candle in her memory, which are now in the Lady Chapel of Marwood Church.

I don’t know who was responsible for designing or installing the memorial on the cliff, and the script is a little blurred. But it is a bittersweet reminder of a lovely girl whose life was snatched from her that day, but who remains there eternally young, dancing for joy.

It’s obvious you’re English

Como se nota que eres inglesa!’ 

As my neighbour walked towards me with his supermarket trolley, I stared at him in bewilderment. Why was he telling me it’s obvious I’m English? He already knew that. I’d often chatted with him and his wife walking their dog in the paseo.

He laughed and began to explain. 

‘I didn’t recognise you at first. I was down the other end of the aisle when I saw you coming the wrong way, bumping in to everyone, and I thought, Oh, she must be English.’

‘The wrong way?’

‘In Spain we drive on the right so we start shopping on the right. But you’ve started on the left.’

It took a moment for the penny to drop. So that rule applied in supermarkets, too, did it? The aisles were streets that everyone had to negotiate in the same direction?

‘D’you know,’ I said, ‘I’ve been here seven years and that’s never occurred to me before. Anyway, in this supermarket, the entrance is on the left, so it seems logical to go down that aisle first, not walk up to the other end.’

‘Not to us, it doesn’t. Even if we go straight to the fish counter, which is just inside the entrance, we all walk up to the far end to start the rest of our shopping.’

But surely I’d seen people wheeling their trolleys from both directions? True, a lot of foreigners used this particular store. But most countries drive on the right, so maybe the culprits were all English. Had I sometimes noticed impatient looks when I met other shoppers head-on with my trolley? Or was I becoming paranoid?

‘Oh well, people must be used to us English by now, with so many of us here,’ I said. ‘It’s some achievement that I’ve got used to driving a car on the right.’

He laughed and began to tell me of his difficulties when he first worked in Sweden, back in the days when they used to drive on the left. Something else I didn’t know.

While I laughed along with him, my mind battled to remember how we negotiated supermarket aisles in England. Did all shoppers in Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s walk in the same direction, from the same starting point on the left? Or was it a free-for-all? I was no longer sure – it was such a long time since I’d shopped there, and my memory was a bit wonky.

Maybe this was just one more example of a bizarre Spanish rule. Either that, or it was a sign of how much I had left to learn. What do you think?

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!