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?
I didn’t even know his name. He was the boy I adored from afar, who ran round the playground with his coat flying from his shoulders, like a highwayman on horseback, snatching my breath away. He hung by his knees from the climbing frame, his shirt billowing open to show a pale stomach, while I watched, bursting with adoration, speechless with shyness.
Of course he didn’t know my name. He didn’t even notice me, but something jumped inside me like a spark to connect with him. Perhaps it was that gypsy gene trapped in the skinny little girl with her school tie and cardigan, her plaits tied with bows, who only dared to peep at him so he’d never know the way her tiny heart was pumping. He rushed by with his wild black hair and feverish eyes, nearly knocking me over as he chased after a football and went rolling on the grass in a play-fight with his friend, grazing his knees. When he stood up there was blood, scarlet mixed with dirt, but he didn’t seem to care.
He came from the council estate down at Sturry, a drab sprawl of post-war prefabs and mean little terraced houses on the wrong side of Canterbury where the tourists never went. For some reason that I never fathomed, children from that school had been moved to our middle-class primary, which nestled in a leafy residential offshoot of the cathedral city.
‘Rough children,’ my mother warned me, ‘who play in the street and use bad language.’ She’d been cowed into thinking that this holy city was all lace doilies and processions of robed and mitred ministers. Didn’t she know about Chaucer’s pilgrims and the lewd tales they told? Or how the Cathedral altar was once splattered with the blood of Thomas a Becket, twelfth century Archbishop, slain at the orders of his king? She’d left school without completing her education and wanted better for her own children.
My brother had enjoyed a few months at Sturry School, where he’d learned to stuff his hands in his pockets, wipe his nose on his sleeve, belch loudly at meals and say ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’. This didn’t go down too well with our clergyman father, although he himself had started life as a village boy and was no stranger to such habits. But here in the hallowed hub of the Anglican Church, our parents had a reputation to keep up. Our mother, whose own mother had been in service, understood how the gentry lived and was anxious not to be disgraced by her offspring. So when my turn came to go to school, she searched out one which would nurture and refine, only to find her plans thwarted by the influx of ruffians from Sturry.
When they first arrived we stood in a huddle like a resident tribe, expecting a fight and prepared to be afraid. But they rushed in with a whoop, made themselves at home, and before we knew it we were all mixed up together. Apart from our curiosity in the way they spoke, their talk of outside toilets and two or three to a bed, we soon forgot what all the fuss was about. Children are attracted or repelled by instinct, not socio-economic factors. And, yes, when this black-haired boy galloped past, he whipped up a wind of recklessness which thrilled me.
Later, much later, when I was studying for my A levels, I heard about him from Mandy, a grammar school girl who lived on the same council estate and had remained my friend. He was working as a plumber, she said, or was it a bricklayer, and he still lived down in Sturry. His sister had just got pregnant, and his Dad had died of some lung disease that he’d contracted in the days when he’d been a miner over at Betteshanger Colliery. My childish passion seemed odd to me now. I was about to go to university and the world was opening up for me, while he was rooted right there, where he’d always been.
‘He’s not your type, anyway,’ Mandy said when I plucked up the courage to tell her that I’d once thought he was wonderful. She moved between his culture and mine and knew more than I cared to admit about incompatibilities between the two. In one way she was right: I didn’t want to end up living on the Sturry Estate. But in another way, no, she wasn’t, because a short while later he reappeared in the form of Pete, working-class to his toes. In this new incarnation he was educated and upwardly mobile, didn’t give a toss what anyone thought of him, was totally at ease wherever he went. Pete sniffed and dropped his aitches, and a nerve in his eye twitched, but he could charm the pants off anyone, dustman or duke. His Dad was ex-army and stood in his vest frying up a Full English in their tiny kitchen. His Mum shuffled up the street to the bookies in her slippers, and left her false teeth on the table. ‘Put your teeth in, Jen,’ his Dad would say to her, ‘The Bishop’s coming to tea,’ and he’d wink to let me know he meant my father.
Then one day out of the blue that same little boy popped up again, cavorting in the turquoise waters of an Aegean island, where he somersaulted and gambolled so easily that the spark he’d once set smouldering burned again more brightly, and something in the way he moved and thrilled to his own movement, took me somersaulting with him. This time he called himself Markos, spoke Greek, and his body had grown brown and strong and handsome. But he was still irresistibly full of joyful exuberance, with a willingness to take risks that inspired and excited me. Like children we fell in love by instinct, but lack of language was our downfall. Without the words to distinguish one who fixes from one who designs, I feared that when he was not on holiday he wore dirty overalls and lived in the Athenian equivalent of the Sturry Estate. By then I had grown pretentious, so I ditched him. Many years later, when I was older and a little wiser, I realised my misunderstanding, but by then it was too late to repair the damage.
The same wild boy turned up again one last time in Carlos. Carlos the rebel, now speaking Spanish, the son of a well-to-do family, who preferred to skip school and learn to be streetwise, giving two fingers to Franco and all that he stood for. By the time I met him he’d embarked on a life of rebellion and reckless adventure, which would lead down a slippery slope to the deep despair of mental illness.
So there he was time after time, that little ruffian from the Sturry Estate, metamorphosed into men from different cultures and countries, whipping me into a frenzy of wonder, only to be snatched away by death, or the gulf of misunderstanding, or psychosis. Again and again that wild highwayman has reappeared, in one disguise after another. Each time, as he dashes past, he snatches another piece of me and disappears with it into the distance, still eluding me.
*If you liked this piece, you can read an exploration of love and its complications in my debut novel Fragments of a Dream
*My childhood experiences in Canterburyweave into one of the threads of my upcoming novel Between Two Shores . More news about this next spring.
Thanks to C.L. Naylor for this brilliant review of ‘Fragments of a Dream’
“If only Angelos and I could rewrite our lives on a blank page equipped with fresh wisdom and insight.”
Describing Larrea’s debut novel as a simple love story doesn’t quite do it justice. Considering the ageing population, marriages that collapse in later years and the need to be loved, it is refreshing that the protagonist is in her senior years, close to retirement. It is a romantic story of people in the third age of life rediscovering themselves and their loved ones.
Rosie Burden is a survivor and the novel has a positivity about it in spite of the setbacks. “A lifetime of sacrifices” is how she described putting Harry first. No tell-tale signs that he would leave Rosie for a younger woman. There were tensions throughout their marriage which affected their offspring, Lisa and Matthew but nothing unusual compared to other families. Rosie had seen her marriage as an insurance policy against the terrors of old age. A “death sentence” makes it a bit melodramatic but it does come as a shock to Rosie as the pessimism sets in for a while: frailty, senility, loneliness and decrepitude. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Is this what’s in store for us?
Harry and Rosie had been an item during their 1960s university days. He seemed arrogant. In spite of a virginal Rosie, naïve and lacking in confidence she was attractive and was hungry for knowledge which appealed to Harry. It seemed inevitable that they would remain an item, marry and set up home together which is in fact what happened. Rosie’s first holiday abroad to Greece with fellow university friend Maggie Burns coincided with Harry’s climbing club trip to the Alps. Rosie and Maggie chose to visit Hydra, a beautiful island described as Bohemian, unspoiled and picturesque. Rosie fell for a 19 year old Greek Adonis “as gorgeous as a God on an ancient vase.” She had been “instantly captivated” and “mesmerised” by him “frolicking like a dolphin.” So different to Harry. Was this just a holiday romance?
A photograph take in Hydra in 1966 was a reminder of their youth, beauty and love. Her fling had cast a long shadow on her marriage and Harry reminded her of this when he wrote his parting note to tell her he had met someone else. Then walked out on her.
So, you can see where this is leading, can’t you? Rosie yearns to return to Hydra after 43 years to find her lost love. She didn’t want anyone to know the reason for her return because she’d have been labelled an “old fool” pursuing a “mad quest.” Trying to relive the past, for what it was worth, she invites Maggie once again who invites one of their university friends, Mike Knutt known as Knuttsie. Mike had had a crush on Rosie all those years ago and still carried the torch for her having had three disastrous marriages and three divorces. When Rosie feels at her lowest ebb he proposes and is sadly and inevitably rejected. A wonderful friend but not lover material.
Difficult to know what Rosie expected to find returning to the scene of her lustful youth. Hydra was exactly as she had remembered it but there had been changes. The flat-roofed house where she stayed didn’t seem to be there and the beach had been altered with the cliffs eroded and a few trees left. Rosie’s excitement and anticipation soon changed to disappointment. He wasn’t there and it had been a wasted journey.
“It was a mistake to revisit the past, dangerous to dream of the future.” So, whilst Rosie tries to relive her youth we are reminded of contemporary events happening in Greece: unrest in Athens, angry protests, petrol bombs thrown by anarchists, general strikes, airports and ferry terminals closed. Hints of realism.
And what of the enigmatic, misunderstood Angelos? A fascinating character, more husband material than Harry Burden, full of passion. We meet his nephew Nikos who becomes attached to Rosie’s granddaughter, Becca and with the next generation with their level-headedness there is every chance of love blossoming and lasting. What more can I say?
” Grasping at the past was like climbing the wrong way up a down escalator, refusing to believe it was stronger and faster than you.” Love makes fools of us all, regardless of age.
Available on kindle and paperback: ISBN: 978-1-79 153-908-5 Review by C.L.Naylor. Copyright 2019. Permission must be obtained from the writer before any of this is reproduced in any form.
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.’
After an obstacle course of technical hitches, I’ve at last managed to update my author website, complete with new layout and photos!
As well as this blog, there are now pages on my debut novel, Fragments of a Dream, (set in Athens and the Greek island of Hydra), other novels in progress, writing courses I’ve attended, the joys of ESOL teaching, and some – but by no means all – of my life experiences.
On the Home page you can read all about Fragments of a Dream: a book description, reader reviews, and even sign up for the first chapter FREE!
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.