Tales of the Lecrin Valley

And now a diary about what happens in the Valley of Happiness, written mainly during our transition from Madrid to the valley.

They are more or less in chronological order, please read this one first, (unless you’ve read the others already.)


I suppose that as I am writing about the Valle de Lecrín I ought to describe it. It lies at the western tip of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucia, Southern Spain. The Sierra Nevada are big mountains, going up to eleven and a half thousand feet, the tops covered in snow from November to May. I can see the snow from my study window and when the sun is shining on it, it’s breathtaking. They say that on a good day you can see Africa from the top of the highest peaks. If seeing Africa is a good day for you.

The valley is mid-way between the magical city of Granada and the Mediterranean Sea. Our village, Saleres, is at the bottom of the valley, but nevertheless at a height of about two thousand feet. It has a marvellous micro-climate that normally allows the almond blossom in January to remain untouched by frosts. As long as the blossom comes out after the January moon has waned.

There is a river that runs through the village, called the Rio Santo. It’s only small but it runs year-round which is quite rare in the south of Spain. This keeps the valley irrigated and beautifully lush and green. None of the locals know it’s called the Rio Santo but name it after the next highest village in the valley, from whence it comes. This was quite confusing when I first arrived here and at first I thought there were three rivers. It starts in the hills above Albuñuelas, runs through the Albuñuelas gorge, down through Saleres and on to Restábal. From there it empties into the large and very deep Béznar reservoir at the bottom of the valley. The people who live in Albuñuelas call it ‘El Rio,’ the people living in Saleres call it ‘El Rio Albuñuelas,’ and the people in Restábal call it ‘El Rio Saleres.’ Nobody lives in the reservoir. There is a footpath that runs beside the river, which should be avoided after a night on the beer unless you are an inveterate traveller, as it goes east to Athens in one direction and west to Gibraltar and on into Africa in the other. There are few roads and the locals use mules to transport fruit from the groves to the village whence it is picked up by truck and taken to one of the various cooperatives.

The valley is steeped in history and ruins. There is a Roman villa and baths, Moorish forts and lookout posts, and later Mozarab churches and houses. My old house is one of these, the deeds merely stating that the house is ‘more than a century old.’ The walls are a metre thick and made of mud. I didn’t know this until Paco the builder tried to put an adjoining door between my house and Carmen’s and had to call in a team of miners to finish the job. It’s cool in summer and warm in winter which is just why it was built like that.

The valley is very steep-sided so the Moors terraced the slopes to enable the planting of orange, lemon, almond and olive trees to supply the nearby city of Granada. The main acequias, or water channels, follow the high contours around the top of the valley and can be tapped into to flood-irrigate the terraces below. To do this, you level your terrace and build a foot-high retaining dike around it, then you dig an acequia from the main acequia to your piece of land. When the you are ready, you open your sluice, the water runs along your acequia and onto your terrace until it is flooded to the height of your retaining dike. Then the sluice is closed and the water gradually seeps into the soil. When the terraces are flooded at dusk, the orange-red reflections of the sunset in the still water is stunning. Like rice paddies with attitude.

Carmen has inherited a piece of land in the most inhospitable part of the valley and I am dreading the time when she wants me to terrace and build an acequia down to it. I have only been there twice, and the second time I fell down an overgrown acequia and slid down to the terrace below, smashing my ear against a rock and damaging a couple of ribs. I returned to Madrid the following day with a blue-black ear and was incapable of lifting my arm to write on the blackboard without moaning pitifully, a source of great amusement to my students.

Saleres has about three hundred souls. There were more, but the earthquake of a hundred or so years ago sent half the village down the valley side and into the Rio Albuñueñas. The bottom of our garden is the fault-line which separates the half of the village which disappeared from the half which remained. Carmen’s sister is a Mining Engineer and she bought some topographical maps of the area to us last year when she came to stay. When she visits she sleeps with a crucifix clutched to her breast. I am currently devising a delicately balanced gadget which will fall with a great noise if anything untoward occurs. There are literally dozens of fault-lines running through the valley, but no-one in living memory admits to having so much as felt an earth tremor, although there was one last month. Just in case, Carmen’s house is built using new construction techniques, but in the old village style. The foundations are a half-metre of steel reinforced concrete, the basement is a bunker, and if there is another earthquake we will simply slide or roll down the valley side and come to rest in the Rio Albuñuelas, hopefully the right way up.

The people of Saleres are delightful in the main, polite, helpful and generous to a fault with their time and possessions. A pleasure to know. They are a little idiosyncratic, but then, who of us isn’t? Everybody is related, if not brother and sister, then at least a ‘primo,’ or cousin. Everyone knows everyone else, their business, their foibles and their strong points and this can be a great advantage to a foreigner. You only have to get on well with one person in the village and the rest are bound by family honour to be your friend too. Unless the friend you have has enemies. In this case you are honour-bound to take part in any blood-letting vendetta which may be on-going; or at least not to be too friendly with the enemy and his family if you see them. Most people have forgotten what started the vendettas in the first place, but it is normally a mule, a woman or water rights. I prefer to play the slightly idiotically grinning ‘guiri,’ or foreigner, and play hale-fellow-well-met to all and sundry, including dogs and cats. This always puts you in well with somebody. Saleres is full of characters, nearly all on the old side, as the youngsters have left to work in the cities of Granada or Barcelona.

If you ask the mothers of the ones who live in Barcelona what their children do for a living, they invariably reply ‘Business People,’ which means they are either taxi-drivers or entrepreneurs of one kind or another. These prodigals only come to the valley once a year, during the entire month of August, the only month when there is no work to be done in the campo, save perhaps the early harvesting of almonds. This means plenty of parties and is a good time to be in the valley, but a bad time to be waiting for a taxi in Barcelona. All the villagers from Barcelona drive BMW’s or Mercedes’, and the only way to tell the taxi-drivers from the entrepreneurs is by noting the colour of their limousines. The entrepreneurs vehicles aren’t painted a dull yellow and don’t have a sign on the roof saying ‘TAXI.’

The ones who now live in Granada are teachers, doctors or nurses, with a couple of agronomists and agricultural engineers thrown in. They drive sensible estate cars and come and stay at the parental home every weekend and work in the groves to help their parents, many of whom are well beyond retirement age. On Sunday evening they fill their cars to the brim with oranges and sell them in Granada’s shops for a bit of cash on the side. I often smile when every Friday evening one of the teachers from Granada arrives in his Renault Espace, dressed in a sober suit and looking suitably serious and teacher-like. He parks in the Church Square and walks smartly into his parents house. Half an hour later you see him smiling broadly, dressed in traditional village working clothes, riding his father’s mule up the track into the campo. I have taken some photos of him for his pupils and will blackmail him at some time in the future.

It is a bit of a paradox that the village school which gave a such good education to these young professionals is now closed as there are not enough children to justify it being there. It has now merged with the schools in Melegís and Restábal, the old school building currently being used as an adult education centre and a library. Many of the oldsters, having suffered from the neglect of Andalucia under Franco, are now going to evening classes to learn to read and write. There are also handicraft lessons, always over-subscribed by the older women. They have a natural ability to ‘make-and-mend,’ having lived that way for well over half a century, and some of the artefacts they produce would sell well in any handicraft fair. On a high point, some of the people from Barcelona and Granada are now restoring the family homes in the village with an eye to retirement away from the city, which bodes well for the village, and even better for Paco and Jose-Luis the builders.

There are no shops in Saleres. but there is a small market once a week in the bottom square in front of the olive mill. When it is not market day, the village is serviced by dozens of white-van-men who drive into the square at all hours, their horns screaming like banshees. The local women can distinguish one horn from another, but that skill has defeated me until now, as I’m deaf in one ear and have difficulty distinguishing where the sound is coming from, let alone who is making it. Anything we need, Ascension Two gets for us and we pay her later. There are three different bakers who each come three times a day; the egg-woman who is a ferocious looking creature and whom I’m surprised has any wares to sell as a look from her can crack an egg at a hundred paces; the frozen-food man, the red-meat butcher man, the chicken-meat-man and just about anyone else who has ideas of selling anything. Last week there was a man selling sofas and chairs, with a deafening loudspeaker atop his Transit van proclaiming to all that their luck was in and that the Chair Man had arrived.

Until last year there used to be the open-backed rubbish-truck, which was a sight and smell to behold. It would arrive daily at six-thirty in the afternoon, the only vehicle with a timetable. The driver would jump out and run upwind to avoid the smell and the villagers would hold their noses and throw their rubbish over the sides and into the back of the truck. It was a good time to meet people, to find out how they were and what they were throwing away. Nowadays there are psychologists who go through peoples rubbish to find out what kind of personality they have, but this has been going on in Saleres for years. You have to remember to throw any really good rubbish away privately, or disguise it in a black plastic bag, or people will think you are getting above yourself.   The truck has now been replaced by the council with large plastic rubbish containers and a modern truck comes and empties them. At least I suppose it does, as on reflection I can’t ever remember seeing it, but the containers are often empty so it must do. In the bottom square there are three pristine containers for glass, paper and old clothes. This is an attempt by the Council to ‘Go Green,’ but no-one in the villages throws anything valuable or re-usable away so they stand sadly neglected where they were originally positioned.

The villagers all grow their own vegetables in the campo, as the alluvial soil from the Sierra Nevada is capable of supporting anything. The wild asparagus that Antonio Two occasionally brings us, when mixed with scrambled eggs from Ascension One’s chickens, is a dish worthy of a king. I forgot to mention that many villagers have a room on the ground floor of their houses for breeding chickens, another for the mule and an extensive bodega for mosto-making and the like.

The village bar is in the main square, the door hidden behind an old striped curtain. Only men go in there and it intimidates even an ex-bar-room-brawler like me. It’s the most basic bar I’ve ever been in, a room with a waist-high wall running down the middle to separate the bartender from the customers. These customers are at least two hundred years old, always wear trousers, boots, shirt, pullover and jacket, no matter what the temperature outside; look as if they’ve never left the bar and speak an argot which I have given up trying to understand. I have never seen any of them in the village or in the campo, and am not sure who they are. Perhaps they’re the ghosts of drinkers past?

Due to an event of about five years ago I’m accepted there. When I say accepted, I mean that with the aid of sign language they serve me miniscule bottles of beer, and I’m hoping that in another few years they will talk to me and give me what I order and not what they decide I want. If the bar is shut and you need a drink you can always knock on the door of the barman’s wife and she will open up for you. She also has the keys to the church if you wish to visit that out of hours, so you can get a job lot, so to speak. A pragmatic approach by the cura, I think.

Their tapas are diabolical.

The event of five years ago. I was in Saleres for a fortnight in August, working on my house. It was wickedly hot at around 40 degrees and I had spent all day on the terrace in the sun, building a pergola. When I’d finished I went to the fridge for a well-earned beer or two and found that I’d earned them all already, so decided to go to the bar for my reward. My request for a cerveza was dutifully ignored, the barman and the customers looking at each other and shrugging shoulders at the sweaty red foreign intruder wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I pointed to a bottle of beer on the bar and the barman got me one out of the fridge. The bottle was only twenty-five centilitres, less than half a pint, and I’d been working for eight hours. I drank straight from the bottle and with the bottle still tilted to my mouth I pointed to the fridge for a second. The barman gave me another which went down in one, two beers in less than thirty seconds. Then I asked for another and had that in a glass, then one for the road and was out of the bar within three minutes. Not unusual in the Nags Head, but in the village the word spread like wildfire.

‘There’s an English borracho, a drunkard living in the village,’ I heard whispered around the streets for the next few days. So I went to Mass the following Sunday, clean shaven and with shirt and tie, and think I was forgiven, but I don’t go to the bar except in the direst emergencies or to frighten visiting friends. I prefer Jose’s bar in Restábal.

My immediate neighbour, Antonio One, worked as a guest-worker in a factory in Germany for most of his adult life, and now enjoys his retirement working in the campo. He is seventy-odd years old, about five feet high, weighs less than eight stone, is always working and laughing and has a grip like a vice. His wife Ascension looked after the land whilst he was away and between them they know everything there is to know about crops and plants. Antonio has problems understanding my Spanish, which is sort-of Castellano, and he only speaks Andaluce, and the Andaluce of the valley at that. When we suffer a communication problem he reverts to German, as he assumes that as I’m not Spanish I speak German. My German is known as soldaten-sprecht, or soldier-speak, which enables me to order up to five beers, to ask directions to the nearest fast-food outlet and to get a taxi back to the barracks, none of which is of much use in a farming valley in deep in southern Spain. But we get on fine, and once I even did what was expected of me.

But I am worried about his concept of time. Having waited three weeks to prune my vine, and having been told that I have to wait ‘until the January moon has waned,’ I’m afraid I doubted his word, checked my diary and found that the moon had waned on 15 January and it is now February. So this weekend when I arrived in Saleres, there was the moon defiantly waxing itself in full view of me and him, but still he adheres to his ruling. Either he is stark raving mad and I should get on with the pruning, or he doesn’t know what month it is and I should advise him in some way that January is past. The trouble is that nobody else in the village has pruned their vines either, and I’m beginning to wonder if they are on the same calendar as me. But paranoia is a wonderful thing, as they say. Or is Saleres the Spanish translation of Brigadoon and do I pass through some kind of a time-warp somewhere on my journey there?

It would explain those customers in the bar.

Down your way

Did I ever tell you about the time, many years ago, when we went with a group of the villagers to the television studios in Malaga for a sort of ‘Down your Way’ programme? 

The mayor asked Carmen and I if we would like to go along to represent tourism in the valley and we of course agreed.  Other villagers were with us to expound on the virtues of living in ‘The Valley of Happiness.’

We boarded a coach in the village and off we went to Malaga, a veritable charabanc trip, the like of which I’ve not been on for since I was a lad, singing and laughter all the way.  We arrived and were shown into the studio and briefed on what was to happen.  It was a two-hour daily programme about all things Andalucian.  First there would be a general spiel about what was going on in the Malaga area, then we would be asked to talk about Saleres, then the resident doctor would answer telephone calls from people with various ailments and then the wind down and finish.

All went well, then it came to our spot.  The mayor got up and spoke most eloquently about our valley and what a delight it was to live in a paradise full of orange and lemon trees, how the Moors of Granada had used the valley as a market garden and also to escape from the August sun in Granada to the valley’s mellow microclimate and about how the valley had thereby adopted the name of the Valley of Happiness.  He stopped just short of saying that all the villagers spent their days dancing and singing in the streets and throwing nosegays at visitors. 

Carmen did her bit for tourism, again saying what a wonderfully relaxing place the valley was and how you could come on holiday there and be rejuvenated with the happiness vibes that emanated from every nook and cranny of the village and the surrounding orange groves.  Then, having done our utmost to sell the valley as a veritable Paradise of laughter and joy, which of course it is, we all sat down and waited for the doctor to do his thing.  But the doctor did the unforgiveable, went off-script and turned to us Salereños and asked,

‘Does anyone from Saleres have anything they would like to ask me?’

We all did the usual shuffling in our seats and looking down at our laps and then one of the wives said,

‘Yes.  I have lived in Saleres all my life and suffer terribly from depression.’

A stunned silence from the doctor and the mayor turned all the colours of the rainbow.  The doctor swiftly signalled for the producer to patch through a call from outside and the show proceeded.

No-one knew exactly what to do when the show finished, we could hardly castigate the poor woman and tip her over the edge, but the mayor had arranged lunch for us in one of Malaga’s institutions, a seafood restaurant on the beach called El Tintero, so we piled off the bus there and had a few wines and thought about damage limitation.  Being Spanish, interest was soon lost in this pointless exercise and we enjoyed a lovely seafood lunch.  El Tintero doesn’t have a menu, the waiters walk at great speed around the restaurant holding plates of different fishes high in the air and shouting at the top of their voices whatever is on their particular plate.  When you hear the name of a fish dish you like you just stop one of them and he gives you a plate of whatever he is carrying.  A great atmosphere with waiters shouting their wares and punters shouting to attract the waiter’s attention.  Good noisy Spanish fun.  When you are finished the waiter comes to your table, counts the number of plates thereon and charges you accordingly.  We ate outside as the weather was very clement, and the mayor told me that in the past this part of the restaurant had been on the beach but they had had to concrete it over  as the punters would eat their fill and bury most of their plates in the sand before the waiter came around and did his tally.  Good jape.  I wondered what other tricks people got up to to avoid paying.  Putting the dishes in your wife’s handbag?  Masking tape them to the underside of the table? Stick them up your jumper?  In our case this wasn’t necessary as the mayor was paying, so we just tucked in enjoyed ourselves.

A typical day out in Andalucia, the best laid plans of mice and men……?  Never mind, it gives me something to write about. 

As an aside, I saw the unfortunate lady this morning at the weekly market in the village square and she looked very happy, but then what woman doesn’t enjoy shopping?


I have written about Jesus before. A good friend, the Maestro of the rotovator, the chain-saw and the heavy-duty strimmer. I first met him about twelve years ago in Jose’s bar in Restabal. Strong as an ox, apparently daft as a brush but with an insight into people that was both accurate and faultless, generous to a fault, it was he who appeared in the upstairs bar one morning in the early hours, leading a mule. It took the whole bar to get the thing back down the stairs, it was obviously terrified of walking forwards on marble stairs and let us know just how scared in the time-honoured manner.

The first time I saw him I thought he was a member of the Spanish Legion, there are several ex-members in the valley. Somewhere I have a picture of him, brown as a berry, with his shirt open to the waist, his hirsute six-pack there for all the world to see as he has a beer after a long day in the campo. He was one of three brothers and it was the sight last night of his youngest brother walking in the dark many miles from home, that prompted me to write this. It would tickle Jesus pink to think that anyone cared enough to write about him. All three brothers lived with their mother. The youngest contracted cancer and died young. Jesus’ other brother never got over this and started to walk, at all hours, in all weathers, to destinations known only to him. He is a good-looking lad, tall and slim and with long hair like a biblical prophet. I have never heard him speak.

Jesus seemed to be more stoic about the loss but he spent more and more time in the bar. For the first few years it didn’t seem to affect him, he was still always ready for a laugh and we roared away many a night. He was a good-looking bloke but never had any permanent relationship with a woman, or impermanent come to that, but would tell me hilarious stories about his forays into La Luna, the local house of ill repute. It was rumoured that more than one of the girls there, as well as a few of the local girls, had taken a fancy to him and wouldn’t have minded looking after him, but it seemed to go over his head and he stayed with his mother and very happily so, he told me on more than one occasion. Whether he was looking after her and his brother or his mother was looking after the pair of them I don’t know, but it seemed to work. He continued to do the work of a peon for Jose who regulated his alcohol intake and found him jobs to do. With the arrival of Aya in our family we stopped going to the bar on our way home from work in the evenings and I was shocked when I next saw him a couple of years later. I’m not given to exaggeration and I can assure you that he looked seventy years old. His frame had shrunk to nothing, his cheeks were sunken and grey and his eyes bloodshot and hollow. I greeted him as always and pretended not to notice his condition and the spark came back into his eyes. We joked as before but when I discreetly asked Jose what had happened to him he replied that his liver was virtually destroyed and he had just been released from a period in hospital. He got better over a period of time, put on weight and went back to work, although not as the ox he had once been. Then just before Christmas I went into Jose’s bar and asked after him. He died two weeks ago, his liver gave out, Jose’s son Cristian told me. I wish I had known, I feel remiss not having gone to his funeral, but they bury people within twenty-four hours here in Spain and we hadn’t been told. And now his brother is to be seen wandering far and wide at all hours of the day and night. Although I have never spoken to him or even heard him speak, I hope that he and his mother communicate and will come to terms with the tragedy that is their family.

 Health in the community

Those of you whom I have met during your time in the valley will know about the company car I use, an old white Peugeot 205, battered and beaten and on one occasion belching smoke from under the bonnet from a burnt out starter motor. This faithful old workhorse can go virtually anywhere in the valley, even to our house at the top of Saleres. I don´t know how old she is, it seems rude to ask an old dowager like her, but she has a couple of hundred thousand kilometres on the clock, a big thumping pre-turbo diesel under the bonnet and is known and revered (or feared) by all and sundry. But more of this later. 

The latest matter of note in the villages has been the advice given by the Doctor to the old ladies to get out and do some exercise to avoid falling victim to the heart attacks which seem to have struck down all of their husbands. This takes the form of a short walk in the evening, so at about an hour or so before sunset, a parade of ancient ladies leaves each of the villages and heads east. It is interesting to note that they all walk east, as this way they never meet the widows from the next village. In fact they seem to be actively avoiding each other. I must look into that.

I fear that the advice of the doctor is not the sagest I have ever heard as now the old ladies run a higher risk of heart attack than ever, and I am heading for one as well. For this is the very hour that I am normally scuttling back to the office in Melegis. My old car has no power steering and she tends to wander a bit on corners, nothing dangerous, just a little drift to left or right, enough to give the impression of an un-guided missile to anyone in front of her. And this is the very impression that the groups of black-robed lady pensioners strung across the road get just before they are forced to skip lithely to one side of the road or the other clutching their heaving breasts, “Oooohing” and “Aaaahing” and fanning their flushed faces. 

For me, a cliff face on one side, a drop into the lake on the other and a gaggle of grannies to the front, it is the closest I can come to a full-blown seizure without actually having one. The adrenaline shoots through my veins and gives my poor old heart more stimulation than is good for it at my age. And it is like this on the outskirts of each and every village in the valley as I drive blindly into the sun on my way west to Melegis. If they would go out in the morning I would have a better chance, but there are too many things for them to do in the mornings, not least Mass. The only person who is at risk on the roads then is Manolo the priest, as he shoots from village to village, Mass to Mass, on his moped. I nearly had him once on the bridge below Restabal, but he showed no fear or interest in me as he dominated the crown of the road in the middle of the bridge, his mind obviously on higher things. I know my limitations and try to stay off the roads as he goes about his duties. He has better back-up than I. 

I have a theory, (perhaps a vain attempt to justify my apalling driving) that in fact these regular adrenaline bursts are doing both myself and the old ladies good, getting our hearts beating and the blood pumping, just like the doctor wants. Time will tell. Let´s hope it isn´t Old Father Time.

 Trucks and Chickens

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the drive from Madrid to Granada on Fridays. As Carmen works Friday afternoons it very much depends what time she finishes as to the ease of getting out of Madrid. Four o’clock is the optimum, but this is rarely achieved. Five o’clock is catastrophic and can often mean two hours for the first ten kilometres. This is because the City Council has built four ring road/motorways by-passing Madrid, which all disgorge their traffic onto the two-lane N4 going south. That translates to twelve lanes of truckies all desperate to get to their homes in the south for the weekend. They are all bloody-minded in the extreme and give no quarter.

Spanish trucks are governed to 90kph, but unfortunately not all their governors are precisely regulated. So for the first two hundred kilometres there is a free-for-all. As I have plenty of time to waste on these journeys, Carmen being busy on the phone for the first two hours before she is rendered comatose by the effort, I have made some observations.  

If a truck is travelling at 90kph and the truck in front is only capable of 89kph, the faster is honour bound to pull out to overtake. A truck of fifteen metres needs approximately fifty metres to overtake another fifteen metre truck. Fifty metres at a relative speed of 1kph takes three minutes, so I must resign myself for those three exasperating minutes when I have to halve my speed to accommodate the trucks. But of course the road is never flat. If there is an uphill slope the overtaking vehicle loses its 1kph advantage and it descends into a teeth-gritting, white-knuckle battle between the two truckies. If it is a downhill slope both drivers knock their trucks out of gear and freewheel their thirty two or forty tons up to some terrifyingly illegal speed, which Spanish macho laws dictate as absolutely mandatory. 

Meanwhile, behind me and the suicidal truckies, the frustrated Spanish car drivers are going apeshit, trying to overtake on the inside and get between the two trucks in the five metres before they draw level. This is with cars measuring four point five metres. I ponder getting a set of fighter pilot’s mirrors fitted to our car so that I can see where the next unguided missile is coming from. Sometimes, if there is a truck with a governor functioning at 88kph, several trucks will try to overtake at the same time, which gives you time to have a cup of tea, do a bit of make-and-mend, write to Mum or catch up on the hundred and one other things that you have neglected to do during the week. Then magically at Valdepeñas, virtually all the trucks disappear and the next two hundred and fifty kilometres can be covered in an hour and a half, unless a lone truck has decided to do something silly in the Valley of the Falling Dogs. 

And now to the good news. The January moon, masquerading as the February moon, has waned. I spotted Antonio One pruning his vines the other day and he told me to get ready to prune mine. He came around later with his pruning saw and his secateurs, and I got a ladder. As I have said, he is seventy-five, yet he still insisted on getting up the ladder to do the pruning, all the time talking to the vine, congratulating some branches for being nice and strong and condemning the others to instant death.  

The plant from the esparto-curtain-maker’s-wife has died, to be replaced by a climbing, flowering bush-type thing which has gone mad and is growing all over the patio railings. I hope that during our weekdays in Madrid it doesn’t strangle the limonero and I have to start all over again. 

I wanted a small bench built into one corner of the garden, carefully positioned so that I could sit surrounded by fragrant jasmine bushes and watch the sun go down whilst drinking a gin and tonic. (Some chance!) I asked Paco the builder to build me a banco, which is bench in Spanish.  

But not in the village.  

In the village a bench is called a pollo. In the rest of Spain a pollo is a chicken, and I somehow failed to make the connection. So when Paco had built it he asked me, ‘¿Te gu’ta e’ pollo?’, ‘Do you like the bench?’ I replied, ‘Yes, as long as it’s not more than a couple of days dead. And I don’t like it frozen, it’s not the same.’ Then remembering that Paco likes hot food, I carried on, ‘I’ll curry one for you one day, if you like,’ and walked off.  

Paco first looked amazed and then nearly fell off his ladder laughing. He is a great bloke, the head of a family firm of builders and is very patriarchal on-site, directing his much younger brother and two sons. But when he laughs his body shakes and the tears run down his face. I didn’t see this until we became friends, as he was too polite to laugh at me when I was around. I found out when his wife came down from Albuñuelas one day, ostensibly to see how the building was progressing, but actually it was to see the guiri who was making her husband so happy that he laughed for an hour every day after getting home from work. Paco’s Andaluce is so strong as to be unintelligible and is spoken, or sung, at a hundred miles an hour. When he speaks to you it’s like being shot with a machine gun full of vowels with the odd consonant thrown in as tracer. 

I saw the rubbish truck for the first time last week. Actually, I only saw the back of it as it was stuck for some reason at the entrance to the church square. I sat in the car looking at the back of it for half an hour, unable to get out of the village. Eventually it moved, but I never discovered what the trouble was. Probably the driver has a brother, sister or cousin in the village and was having a glass or two of mosto. 

Carmen had to phone Paco’s wife, Trini this week, to see if our house was still there after we heard that there had been an earthquake centred in the Straits of Gibraltar. She said that she had noticed something amiss in Albuñuelas as the dog had been barking all night and that her plumbing had developed a leak. She didn’t know about Saleres, so we phoned Antonio Two who put our minds to rest by saying all was well and reiterating that Saleres is the best place in the world to live and that earthquakes don’t happen there, even if the seismological office in Granada registered 0.6, which ain’t much. I hope the quake of last century is the only one we’ll have in a millenium. (As an aside, one of my Arabic students once told me that he lived in an area infamous for earthsquawks, which I think is a much more descriptive and onomatopoeic word.)

Just Rambling. 

 We had the obligatory visit to the nursery as Carmen said she wanted a vine and four geraniums. We managed to get away with a lavender plant, three flowerpots, two vines and eight geraniums.  The nurseryman has retired and gone to live on a yacht in Monaco.  

The car was packed full as we are gradually moving things from Madrid to the valley at the weekends. Chon was waiting at the door when we got there and I borrowed ‘la maquina,’ or the tracked cart that they have, to move the stuff from the square to the house. Antonio has passed me fit to drive it, after lessons from Pablo, his eight-year-old grandson. It is a brute of a thing, with handlebars festooned with clutches and tillers, a gear shift and an accelerator. It is unsilenced and driving it through the narrow streets makes enough noise to raise the dead. Or the older inhabitants of Saleres, at any rate. In the square I was attempting a three-point-turn with la maquina without destroying any of the parked cars, when I was greeted by a young man of about thirty-five whose name I don’t know but who always waves to me when he sees me. As usual he was with his large brown mule, called La Mula funnily enough. He works in the campo, one of the few youngsters to do so. He eyed la maquina and said,

‘They’re good, these machines, aren’t they? Is it yours?’

‘No, it is Antonito’s, my neighbour’s,’ I replied.

‘Think I’ll get one. This mule is too much trouble and too expensive. Hay and feed and vet and all. And it is dirty and needs cleaning out every day or two. With this maquina you just put fuel in it park it up at night.’

‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ I said, hating to agree with him and see another mule leave the valley. ‘But your mule is a fine strong animal, and in very good condition.’

His eyes lit up in appreciation.

‘Yes, thank you. But I think I’ll get rid of it and get one of those,’ he said, and walked off with his mule, which thankfully didn’t understand any of the conversation and realise the sentence hanging over it’s head. 

Two trips sufficed this weekend and after that, having woken Antonio with the noise of la maquina outside his window, I went into his house to say Hello and to thank him for letting me use it. He was sitting in front of the television watching a quiz programme, the volume turned off, a two litre plastic bottle of mosto in front of him and his glass half empty.

‘I’ve sold the donkey,’ he said.

My heart dropped. Lolita of The Cross, whom I had helped with the treatment of her hormigillas. Lolita, who kept my survival instinct in prime condition with the ever-present threat of vengeance in her limpid brown eyes, had gone to the horse trader in Motril. This was one of the few times that I willing accepted his offer of some mosto. We sat with our glasses in front of us and he sadly told me, or rather justified to himself, the reasons for getting rid of his friend.

‘She is only three years old, and I am seventy-six,’ he said. ‘She needs someone younger than me.’

My eyebrow rose, the effect of only one glass of mosto beginning to kick-in and with it my sense of the ridiculous. This was a donkey we were talking about, even if she was called Lolita. Nabakov sprung unbidden to my mind.

‘I can use the mechanical mule and if that can’t get anywhere I have la maquina. Anyway, I am too old for the campo now. I am useless and should retire.’

‘Rubbish!’ I replied. ‘You work harder than any of the youngsters around here.’

‘There are no youngsters,’ he moped. ‘They are all working in the towns. No-one wants to work the land any more. It is too hard.’

In this he was right and I could offer no defence. And the price of the oranges at the cooperative, even with subsidies, is hardly enough to justify the work. So we had another glass of mosto and drank it in silent tribute to lost friends. 

It looked like a long night, so I excused myself for a minute and went to explain to Carmen that I was with Antonio and that he was feeling low after having sold Lolita. She was cooking a Spanish omelette, said it would be ready in an hour, and asked me to ask Chon to come and talk to her. 

I went back to Antonio, and found a full glass waiting. I got him talking of this and that, to keep his mind off Lolita, and he started to tell me about his time as a young man in Saleres. He had lived with his widowed mother and an older brother, he told me, until he had been called up for the Army. The local mayor had for some reason not wanted him to go, and had told the military that he was needed in the valley to look after his mother. A battle ensued between the Army and the mayor, won of course by the Army, who told the mayor that there was an older brother to look after the widow. Antonio actually wanted to join the Army, to get away from the poverty of the village, and off he went to Zaragoza, to a bakery unit. He told me that his job for two years, with a friend of his, was to stand at a hatch and spend the whole day passing out loaves out to those who needed it.

‘The cavalry would come first,’ he said, ‘And ask for a hundred loaves. I would pass two through the hatch and shout ‘Two!’ Then my friend would pass another two out and shout ’Four!’ Then it was my turn again and I would shout ‘Six!’ until we had reached one hundred. Then the artillery would arrive and ask for three hundred, then the Infantry for five hundred. Then the Guardia Civil. It would go on all day, until we were finished. It was good work, I enjoyed it.’

‘Sounds great,’ I said, wondering how long I would have lasted doing such a monotonous chore.

‘Then I came back to the village and set my eye on Chon. It took a long time to convince her to have me but eventually she did. I was offered a job in the Guardia Civil in Pinos, but only as a cornet player as I’m one metre fifty and too small to do proper Police work. I would have had no chance of promotion, so I said ‘No.’ I was living in the cura’s house at the time, (he offered no explanation as to the whereabouts of his brother or mother,) but, he said, he had to leave there, so as soon as we were married, I packed up and went to Germany to find a job. I had no money when I left but soon had enough to buy the little house next door. I stayed in Germany for thirty years, travelling back and forth on a bus. I love to travel.’

‘And now you have a lot of land and this fine house as well as the little house next door and your large stable and storerooms. You’ve done well for yourself and your family’

‘Yes,’ he said proudly. ‘Now I am not the poor man that the cura kicked out of his house all those years ago.’

His voice dropped. ‘It was the time of Franco. It was better to be in Germany than Spain then. Another mosto?’

I have noticed that when the old people of the village mention Franco, their voices drop, as if in fear of being overheard, they glance furtively around and instinctively reach for another glass of Dutch Courage before speaking.  

Then Carmen called and my hour was up. Already I had what I hoped was a psychosomatic ache in my liver so I made my apologies and went to eat.  

I hadn’t mentioned it before, but have just remembered that Antonio had spent most of Easter week in the stable with Lolita, the door firmly closed indicating that he didn’t want visitors. Carmen said that she could hear him talking to Lolita and cursing the fact that the old cura was returning to the village to take the Easter services, and vowing never to go to the church as long as he was there. I wonder what went on all those years ago? 

I returned to Carmen and had an omelette full of herbs from our garden. She had no idea what she had put in it, which is a pity as it was delicious and she won’t be able to reproduce it. 

Saturday was a day of drilling holes in our walls and Chon’s, to fit flowerpots for the eight geraniums. The roses have started to bloom, in the red and yellow colours of the Spanish flag, would you believe? I have retaliated by digging in my boxes of odds and ends and retrieving the Union Jack that I had on my flat door during the evacuation on Famagusta. It is now hanging on my workshop wall, (re-named ‘Ron’s Shed,’) and this is now my ‘corner of some foreign field that will be forever England.’ Anyone entering has to salute the flag and vow allegiance firstly to Elizabeth II and secondly to me as a warranted officer late of her service. So far only Pablo has done so, but I don’t feel in my heart of hearts that he means it. He just does it to get me to play football with him, or to have water fights which he loves. And he insists on saluting with his left hand. 

The pool is having histrionics, it’s ph level has dropped like a stone. It’s probably because there is half a ton of orange blossom on or under the water. I have just been to buy some liquid to fix it and it seems like pretty potent stuff. Reading the label is like being briefed on the handling of WMD. (That’s Weapons of Mass Destruction for the old lags, not Siwa Oasis.)

Talking of orange blossom, I put a blanket under the orange trees the other day and shook some excess blossom off. I am drying it for use as an infusion, which is supposed to lower tension and stress. Antonio and I will be main-lining it if the garden doesn’t get sorted out soon. 

On Sunday I met Juan and Antonio Two in the square, with Juan’s son. His son no longer works in the campo but has a job in Granada. Juan spent twenty-odd years in France and is an expert on apples, which is of little use in Saleres. However, we do have quinces, or membrillos, which are like furry apples and are rock-hard. You render them down by boiling and this produces a sweet jelly to eat with cheese. Juan and his son had been picking olives all weekend and were loading a trailer with sackfuls ready to go to the mill. Olives sell for about sixty centimos a kilo, and there must have been about three and a half tons on the trailer, which makes about 1,500 pounds sterling profit. A fair couple days work, I suppose. Pity there’s only one harvest a year.  

The oranges are being picked at a fair rate of knots. There is only about another month or so before they are all gone. Some groves haven’t been touched at all, and the ground underneath them is bright with windfalls. Often the people working in the cities cannot find time to pick them. Or like ours, they can’t be brought from the groves without a mule and city-dwellers can’t afford the time to keep one. We are waiting for the council to put in a track alongside the river which will allow maquinas access, and of course I have to build a working acequia and link it to the main acequia, clean and repair the terraces and walls and prune the trees .  

But that will be the subject of another story, hopefully to be told by me and not by Carmen at my funeral.


Just a normal weekend in the Valley

The February moon is on the wane. I saw it last night. 

This weekend in Saleres was just work. We went into Granada first thing on Saturday morning to see the solicitor and from there to the nursery to get yet more plants and pots. This time Carmen bought some red-flowering things and decided she wanted them planting around the kitchen door. Personally I love bees and these plants attract them like nothing else, allegedly. We often get honey from the villagers that have hives. I have told Carmen that the plants are only in flower for four months of the year and that she can come through the kitchen door in complete safety for the other two thirds of the year. But she still wants them moved.

The swimming pool is now looking nice. The water is crystal clear, the ph level is perfect. The chlorine is just right. There are a couple of bits of algae on the bottom of it which I will scrub off when the water is warm enough to swim. This weekend I didn’t even need to vacuum the bottom as no detritus had accumulated during the week. One less job to do. Until Carmen decided to re-pot a rosemary plant and hang it on a pillar next to the swimming pool. At first I thought it was a long promised earth tremor, but when I looked out of the kitchen window and saw the plant floating in the pool and the pot and earth on the previously spotless pool bottom, I realised that this was just Carmen’s way of ensuring that the Devil would not have time to employ my idle hands.  I sometimes feel that she is in league with Old Nick. 

We had some night storage heaters delivered during the week, and I intended to fit them at the weekend. I unpacked one and assembled it, only to find that it had no cable to attach it to the wall socket and that the shops had shut for the weekend. So I set about the next task, running a telephone cable from my house to Carmen’s to avoid having to pay a separate connection fee of one hundred euros. It had to be routed from the front door, over the roof of the cloisters we have around the swimming pool, along the outside of the cloister wall, through the tunnel, along another wall, through my bedroom window, across the ceiling and into the telephone point. Thirty seven metres with supports every metre or so. Tedious work.

There was a wedding in the village this weekend, and for once we were not invited. I didn’t know there was a wedding until I was straddled across the ridge of the cloisters, the cheap new drill I had purchased in a sale in Madrid in my hand, ready to drill a hole to fix the telephone cable. I pressed the trigger of the drill and the world exploded. There were flashes, hisses and stars and the most incredible explosion. I looked at my hand, expecting it to have been blown off, but it was still intact. Then I realised that it wasn’t the drill which had caused the explosion but rockets from the wedding celebration at the bottom of the village. As I believe I’ve told you, we are at the top of the village, and these things went off at about head height. My head.  The tinitis in my right ear from my Commando days was immediately triggered and is still ringing now, days later. Antonio Two, who hadn’t been invited to the wedding either, but was sat on the wall next door watching me working, thought it was hilarious and nearly fell off the Wall.  I’ll call him Humpty Dumpty from now on, which he won’t understand but will make me feel better.  Pablo, Antonio One’s grandson, who was sat next to him, was a bit bemused by it all and was fascinated by the new vocubalury he had heard and of course repeated it to Carmen when he saw her. and earned me a number three rebuke. Pablo was supposed to be in the church for the wedding ceremony but had slipped out because the sermon was dragging on. Evidently the cura was taking full advantage of having the majority of the village captive and was giving them a fair old dose of fire and brimstone.

The telephone task took all afternoon. Antonio One’s family were all at the church and they then came home at about five to get ready for the reception. Antonio One himself didn’t want to go as the smoke in restaurants aggravates him, so when the family had gone, Carmen suggested he came around to us for a glass of wine later that evening. He popped around at about eight and after a few wines he told us some things about the village, especially about the civil war and its effects. He said that five men from the village had been executed for being Communists, although the truth was that they were nothing of the sort, but braggarts trying to impress the other villagers. Antonio was eight at the time and knew only of the Red and the Blue sides, with no notion of their politics. Of course there are still those in the valley who remember and who carry grudges, as after any Civil War, and I now know who they are. During Franco’s time Antonio got out of Spain and went to work in Germany. I told him some of the stories that my mother had told me about being in London during the Blitz and he seemed surprised to hear that we had had a war and that the Germans had been involved. We had a couple of bottles of wine and a Sunday Roast I had prepared and he rolled home at about midnight.

On Sunday morning he told his family we had wined and dined him, and they gave him a bit of a hard time as they had all been feeling guilty about going to the wedding and leaving him behind and hadn’t really enjoyed themselves, while he said he’d had a great night. He retaliated by saddling up his donkey and going off to the campo aboard Lolita, Canela following on her heels. 

I bumped into Antonio Two a little later as I was taking some rubbish to the square. He was loading up a friend’s car with his decoy bird. This is a partridge which has been kept in a cage and trained to sing. It is taken to the campo and the cage is placed in a likely spot for an ambush. The idea is for the bird to sing and attract other birds, which are then dispatched with a shotgun. It seems a little unfair it seems to me, but I keep my mouth shut.

The plumber had arranged to come at four on Sunday, to talk about putting more taps in the garden for Carmen’s plants. We waited til seven, with no sign of him, although I hadn’t been holding my breath. We left then. It normally takes an hour on a Sunday evening to traverse the sixty metres from our house to the car as we have to stop and say goodbye to everybody, but this weekend the streets were empty. Then we bumped into Juan and Antonio Two in the square.  Antonio was annoyed, as his prize songbird, on whom the hunters had been relying for a good shoot, had decided to stay dumb for the afternoon and no-one had caught anything. This annoyance was added to somewhat by the sound of it singing it’s head of in his garage, making up for lost time. Evidently the thing is agoraphobic and only sings indoors, or has a secret pact with the wild birds in the campo. I am sure that if I could understand birdsong I would find it would be singing a refrain about how stupid hunters are and how clever the birds of the sky are. 

By some oversight we had forgotten to invite Juan and his wife to our house warming party so we told him they must come round one evening for a drink. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘Bueno, I have some very good mosto just coming into it’s best.’ And my heart sank.

Which day next week can I afford to write-off because I will have a screaming hangover?

Gardening Lore

A week has passed since the planting of the limonero. This week we managed to wangle three days in the valley, Friday to Sunday. I turned up at the houses in Saleres in the late evening with my secateurs at the ready and my weather eye cocked toward the moon. Waxing or waning? I can’t tell as there is no moon as yet, so it’s off to Jose’s bar in Restabal for a beer and some food then to bed.  

I met Antonio One early the following morning, just as he had finished saddle-bagging his donkey, ready for a trip to the campo to harvest some oranges.

‘How’s the moon?’ I ask. ‘I need to prune my vine today or tomorrow as I won’t be here next weekend.’

‘Remember, pruning can only take place when the moon has waned,’ he says, repeating the caveat of the week before, his eyes glazing over like an oracle.

‘When will that be?’ I ask.

’Yes,’ he replies and rides off into the sunrise. 

So I set to working around the two houses, hanging esparto curtains and flower pots in Carmen’s house and fly-screens in mine, but staying well away from vines. A few hours later Carmen calls me for lunch so I down tools and shut the wicker-gate to our garden, indicating to all in the village that we are not to be disturbed, save for the direst Hippocratic emergencies. This has become a necessity. The villagers get up at sunrise and work in the campo until they come home for lunch at about three in the afternoon. Most of them pass our house on the way back as it is the first one they come to on the mule-path from the groves. If they see that we are there they have taken to popping in to get Tinker Ron to sharpen their tools ready for the afternoon, or to get La Doctora Carmen to remove a mote from their eye, lance a boil, dig out a splinter, offer a quick diagnosis for some real or imagined sickness, or to explain the latest medical reports that the hospital has given them. (I should perhaps mention that Antonio One, at seventy-six, has cheerfully had three heart attacks and Antonio Two, a mere sixty-seven, is morbidly awaiting his second.)

 Mid-way through lunch there is a pounding on the door and I can hear Antonio One shouting my name. Fearing an emergency I open the door and find him standing there with a plastic bag filled with vine cuttings. 

‘We have to plant these today,’ he says.

‘What about the moon? Has it waned?’ I ask.

‘It’s Friday,’ he says enigmatically. ‘I’ll call you when I’ve finished my lunch.’ 

After lunch he is at the door again with the cuttings. I should explain that there is a patch of land at the back of Carmen’s house and beside mine, measuring about ten metres by six. It is wonderfully fertile, as attested to by the metre-high grass that grows there which Antonio One has been using to feed his donkey. But it has a one in three downhill slope.

‘We’ll have to make a small terrace along the top to plant the parras,’ says Antonio, and we set to. It is easy digging and soon there is a half-metre wide terrace ready for the vines. Carmen appears on the terrace above and watches the goings-on with a professional eye. Not a professional eye as regards vine-planting, but with a professional medical eye as to how long it will take before Antonio gets his fourth heart attack.  

I explain to her in English that Antonio has said that we have been given grace to plant as it is a Friday. She says knows. She has been talking to Ascension about this while we have been preparing the terrace and has been told that on Fridays birds don’t eat vine cuttings. I begin to wonder if this is a Spanish conspiracy to wind me up, and picture the laughs at my expense in the bar when Antonio tells the other men in the village about his gullible neighbour, El Loco Ingles. But Antonio doesn’t go to the bar and the look on Carmen’s face says she’s a bewildered as me. She wanders off to pot plants and garner more folk-lore with Ascension One in the main part of the garden. 

The planting went well. We now have eight vines to cover our terrace; and for good measure we planted two jasmine bushes, some mint and two cuttings from an unknown plant that the esparto-curtain-maker’s-wife gave us. Nobody, including Ascension One knows what this cutting is, or even which way up to plant it, but as there are two we planted one up one way and the other up the other and have our fingers crossed that one will take. And the ivy has been planted and trained skywards to cover the balcony. 

As I am on the slope and have the tools with me, I decide to terrace the whole slope, so now we have three narrow terraces ready for planting. I want to plant a creepy flowery thing like a passion flower, which will give good ground cover, keep the soil together and require minimum work. But Carmen saw some men unloading almond cuttings when we were buying the limonero and other plants last week, so next time we are in Saleres we will be looking for almendros. Never mind the irrigation problems, never mind the fact that I will have no room to move around them on the minute terraces unless I am belayed on, never mind the harvesting problems; we are going to have some almond trees. And a few small olive trees would be nice, says Carmen. 

The orange trees that we already have growing in the garden produce horribly sweet juice oranges. They are old trees, at least the trunks are, about a metre in circumference. From the cardinal points on the sides of each of these trunks grow four much smaller calibre main branches. Because of the slope on the other side of the garden wall, I am loathe to dig up the trunks and plant another type of orange as the old trunks have long, deep roots which keep the garden from eroding. I have pipe-dreamed of cutting and grafting different kinds of fruit onto each of these four branches and foolishly mentioned it to Carmen. I say I think orange, grapefruit, tangerine and lemon would look nice, four different fruits on the four different branches of one tree. Carmen has yet to learn the value of prudence during conversation in the valley and mentioned this to Antonio One. Next week he is going to meet the grafting expert, who lives in the next village. So that is now out of our hands and will be the subject of another letter.  

I am beginning to wonder if they are using our garden to experiment with?

Pepe’s Gone Plastic

At dusk, when the birds have flocked to their family trees for the evening’s parochial meetings, shouted to each other the events of their day, discussed the prospects for the coming day, said their goodnights and left for their roosts; one or other of the farmers in the valley opens his sluice from the main  acequia and claims his ancient water rights.   Then in the half-light and quiet of the evening, the sound of water fills the valley, rushing along concrete channels, plunging over rocks and crags or gurgling along watercourses carved in solid rock to finally rest lapping gently on the flooded terraces.  The sound brings a peace to the valley, a continuity with the past, with the Moors, the Mozarabs, the Andaluces.   

But now the sound is becoming scarcer.  Some of the small terraced groves, bordered by small earthen dikes to allow them  to flood, now stand moss-grown, in places the dikes breached.  The acequias are silted up, or filled with weeds.  My favourite sound, from across the valley on Pepe’s land where the water fell one hundred feet over a cliff from the valley’s main acequia into a time-carved rock-pool on his terraces below, is no more. 

Pepe’s gone plastic. 

Medusa-like, thick black PVC piping snakes among the trees, across the groves, straddling terraces, keeping the sound of running water mute within it’s blackness.  Here and there tendrils of thinner piping branch off from the main torso and reach towards their allocated orange or olive tree, succouring and nourishing them in the oh-so-efficient way of progress.  But to service Medusa, here and there on the terraces sit large, squat, ugly concrete cisterns, spoiling the once virgin vistas. And to me Medusa’s life-giving umbilicals appear menacing; serpents in the groves of paradise.

 I mention it to Antonio in passing one evening, guiltily as I feel that it is not my place to talk of trees and water rights.  He tells me that the trees now yield much more and are far healthier.  I tell him that that is good for him and good for the valley as it preserves precious water.  He agrees.  I go on to say that it is also so much easier for him not to have to clear the weeds from the acequias, level the terraces and maintain the small earthen water-retaining walls previously needed for flood-irrigation.  But he is wiser than me.  He agrees that this should be so and that that is what the progressives say to sell their piping and their cement cisterns.  But he tells me that if he stops this continuous, back-breaking maintenance, the flash floods of the winter, rolling down from the Sierra Nevada, will wash away the whole hillside.  So he continues as he has done all his life, and as has been done for centuries, to clear away the weeds from the irrigation channels which have now become drains, build his retaining walls to slow flood-water and keep erosion from washing his trees and terraces away.   

And when he has finished that, he has to find time to service Medusa.   

You can’t deny the farmers their advances.  The maintenance of acequias and the building of the small dikes is back-breaking work.  When finished the terraces look so much a part of nature, natural,  neat, precise, manicured.  But PVC is better.  None of the farmers are getting any younger and their sons and daughters don’t want to continue this back-breaking work, any more than their parents want them to have to.  I pray that the groves don’t die, or that macro-agriculture bulldozes  the tiny terraces into something terrible.

The Limonero 

Back in Madrid, after the weekend in Andalucia. Again the weather was great, a bit cold at nights but when you are in the sun with the wind blocked off it is still good enough to sunbathe. We are putting our garden in order. This weekend I went to buy a lemon tree to plant in between the orange trees we already have, but I made the mistake of letting Carmen come along. Now we have a herb garden, three jasmine bushes, a bay tree, and a rampant ivy thing, which we hope will climb all over the balcony and look suitably rustic, if it doesn’t pull the side of the house off. We also have three climbing plants that I don’t know the name of, but which made the neighbours cross themselves when they saw them. They say they have a smell like jasmine but so powerful that it gives healthy people a headache and those of a weak disposition the vapours. Evidently, the smell is so obnoxious that sometimes people come in the dead of night and cut them down as it prevents them from sleeping. Carmen wanted to send them back, but I’m going to plant them on top of the bluff at the bottom of the garden next to Antonio One’s chicken coop, the smell of which has the same effect on me.

And of course we bought a limonero, a lemon tree. 

Antonio One has promised to plant us some vines to make a tunnel over our long, narrow terrace, but he can’t do it until, ‘The January moon has waned.’ The same with the pruning of my existing vine. NOT until the January moon has waned. I don’t know if we have to dance naked in a circle while this is being done, but if that’s what he says, and he knows a thing or two about vines, then so be it. My reputation in the village probably won’t be affected overmuch by such a mundane thing, as I’m English and expected to be a little bit eccentric. Well, ‘menguar – to wane’ is not a verb that I’d heard before so at first I didn’t know what he was talking about. I pretended to understand all the subtle implications of his statement and wandered off to ponder this pearl of wisdom from my agriculturally savvy neighbour, and to consult the dictionary. I wasn’t much the wiser. Do I need some special invocation or do I need to get the cura in to bless the garden and the vine? As usual I’m lost and ask Carmen if she knows the correct rituals for vine-planting, but she’s an Asturiana and knows only about apple trees. She wonders where I get my pagan ideas from, dancing naked around vines indeed, and calls me an English barbarian. I don’t mention wassailing. I tell her it’s not my idea, but her Spanish neighbour’s, who is probably a Satanist. So she asks Antonio and he explains about January’s waning moon and the answer is that after the January moon has waned there are no more frosts. Allegedly. 

So this year when I’ve harvested my grapes, I will be making my own mosto and I can get my own back for all the hangovers I have had to suffer testing the neighbours’ brews. It’s when I am asked to step in as an arbiter and decide who makes the best mosto in the village that my problems start. My heart and liver drop when they bring out the 2 litre Coke bottles full to the brim with muddy liquid, with a look of reverence on their faces, and I know that they won’t let me leave until all the bottles are empty and I’ve judged whose is the best. And the question is never resolved as in the morning no-one, least of all me, can remember the verdict. So they say we’ll have to do it all again, but invite Pedro and Miguel this time as their mosto is very good, which adds another half-gallon of hooch to the kitty. The truth is that is that there is no good mosto. It should, and probably has been banned from commercial production. Which is why all the men in the village brew their own particular moonshine and my brain cells are being killed off at an amazing rate. Mind you, it would probably be good to put on chips with a bit of salt. 

The lemon tree got planted, with only four different theories of how to do it from two of our neighbours and their wives, (both husbands called Antonio, both wives called Ascension, which adds to the confusion.) I look suitably enlightened, stick my head in the hole I’d already prepared and do what they tell me. After getting me to move it to all points of the compass, presumably as it has to be aligned with the waning moon, they arrive at a concensus and I am allowed to fill in the hole. Then I have to empty it again as I have forgotten to put in the manure. In fact I have no manure and have been told nothing about using manure. I know about shooting into the branches of apple trees with 12-bores, or beating them with a cudgel while full to the gun’les with cider in order to increase the harvest, but that doesn’t translate very well to limoneros, which are a little more sensitive than Granny Smiths. Luckily Antonio One has a donkey next door, so we all go to look at his midden, and discuss for another ten minutes which part best serves a lemon tree. No decision forthcoming, I suggest we take a bit from the top, a bit from the middle and a bit from the bottom, then mix it all together, only to be met with cries of derision. Another ten minutes and we decide that the best thing to do is to take a bit from the middle, then a bit from the top and then a bit from the bottom and mix that. I felt so stupid for suggesting otherwise! So I refill the hole, half earth and half donkey manure, part raw straw and part over-ripe mulch; wet, warm and sticky. Then begins another argument, (or as Carmen calls it, and the Spanish dictionary defines it, a discusión) as to whether to bed it in with plenty of water or just a little. Ten minutes and we agree that somewhere between a little and a lot is sufficient. But I don’t know if that translates to two litres or twenty. So I get a bucketful and give it to Antonio One and he says ‘No, let Antonio Two do it.’ But he declines too, as do their wives; and I get to thinking that they don’t know how much to put on it either. So I take the bucket and resign myself to the castigations and sure enough, as I begin to pour, Antonio one shouts ‘Enough!’ and Antonio Two shouts ‘More!’ while Ascension One sucks in her breath sharply and Ascension Two shakes her head resignedly and says, ‘Ay.ay-ay.’ But at least I have a tree planted in the garden where previously there was a hole, so that’s a result. Of course, after all that hard work, (giving advice is very hard work, much harder than digging a hole for a tree,) they decide it is time for a glass of wine and pats on the back for all except the poor Ingles, who once again has had to be taught the proper way to do things in Andalucia and, of course, has to supply the wine and the tapas! 

In the absence of a garden shed, I have converted a room in the basement into a workshop, complete with a lathe, chainsaw, tool-grinder, and all my other equipment gathered over the years. I made the mistake of showing it off to the two Antonio’s and word has got around that I have a tool-grinder. So now I have visitors at all hours of the day and night, ‘Just popping in for a chat on my way back from the campo,’ with hoes, axes, scythes, secateurs, saws and anything else they can think of. The wives turn up with scissors and knives and I am beginning to feel like a tinker. But I am trading this tinkering of mine for the use of various things of theirs. I have my eye on Antonio One’s donkey for when it is time to harvest my oranges, and Antonio Two has a mechanical mule which will come in useful when we have to move furniture from the village square to our house, after we move there from Madrid. 

And there I’ll have to leave you, as I have to go and buy some secateurs, and prepare myself for next weekend’s lesson on pruning vines, if the moon has waned by then. If not, I’ll have to do it at two in the morning, by torchlight with muffled secateurs. I can’t see my boss in Madrid letting me off for a couple of days midweek, ‘Because the moon has waned and the plants in my garden need me.’ The last thing I want is for him to get it into his head that I am a moon worshipper, or more likely, a lunatic. That would make my job with the British Council less tenable than it already is. 

It’s mid-January, the almonds are now blossoming, giving credence to the Costa Blanca theory. We are 35kms inland and 2000ft higher than the coast so are a little behind them. There is 3m of powder snow on the Sierra Nevada. The trees are full of oranges and lemons and all is well in Paradise.


Lolita the Dancing Donkey

No weekend would be complete for Carmen without a trip to the nursery, so off she went while I got busy assembling a prefabricated table that her father had made me. He works in a steel factory and the table weighed about three hundred pounds, but is a great addition to my workshop. Carmen arrived home with another two huge urns. I bit my tongue and experienced phantom back pains at the thought of moving them endlessly around the garden this weekend until she finds the right position, normally the one she started at. Later the nurseryman and his assistant arrived, who by now are part of the family. They brought even more pots and plants and stood in the rain discussing the garden with Carmen.

Saturday was a quiet day.

Until Carmen told me that Antonio One had asked her if I could help him later with his donkey. The poor thing’s rear leg had swollen quite dramatically and Antonio suspected ormigitas. This translates in my Spanish to small ants, and I wondered if they had climbed her leg and bitten her whiles she was in the campo. But it transpires that they are small insects that bore into the hoof, lay eggs and infect the blood. They are not ants at all, and I was told that the farrier, not the vet, was coming to take care of the problem. Antonio wanted me to hold her leg firm whilst he held her head and the farrier did his stuff. I looked at her leg and sympathised with Antonio and the donkey and asked,

‘What’s she called?’

‘Called?’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Name?’ he said. ‘It’s a donkey.’

‘No,’ I say, ‘It must have a proper name.’

‘Oh,’ says Antonio. ‘Lolita.’

No comment.

I suspect that many of you don’t know, and my horsey sister Elaine will be hurt when I say this, but I don’t like horses and that covers mules and donkeys too. In fact I don’t just dislike them, I am scared of them, and I’m not scared of much. This fear is not without foundation, as the things bite me whenever they see me, and always in the same spot. They put their teeth either side of the muscle on my right shoulder, and bite into the joint. The pain is undescribable, and it has happened at least a half-dozen times. I can be in a crowd of a hundred people, but if a horse is nearby it will unerringly find its way to my shoulder, clamp it’s teeth firmly on the muscle and shake me ‘til I scream.A little example. The Saddle Club in Cyprus, having just watched my daughters taking part in a gymkhana. I am walking past a stable door when a horse, waiting in ambush, sticks it’s head out and grabs my shoulder. I yell in pain and everyone turns from the gymkhana to see what is happening. I am in my best uniform, being Duty Sergeant that day, and look ridiculous hopping about with a horse attached to my shoulder. It hurts so much that I retaliate by letting loose a round-house swing which catches the horse just beneath its eye. It is so shocked that it lets go and jumps back into its stall, where it loses its footing, slips over onto its side and can’t get up again. All the men are awed that I have apparently laid out a horse with a left hook, and the wives and children are outraged at my cruelty. I can’t care less and am trying frantically to wipe the tears of pain from my eyes before anyone sees them. My daughters are so ashamed of me that they start looking for foster parents and my ex-wife disowns me, yet again. The event passed into regimental history and did my image no harm, but I received scowls from the wives and kids for the rest of my time in Cyprus.

Back to the plot. Antonio says he will call me when he needs me and I go back to working on my lathe in the workshop. Pablo calls me at six and I go to the stable to find Antonio and Lolita gone. Pablo and I rush all around the village and we eventually find him waiting by the fountain at the entrance to the lower square. I am in such a rush that I am still wearing my bright orange overalls, which puts Lolita on edge and has the four old men who sit permanently on a wall to the side of the square talking about el butano, or bottled gas delivery man. Antonio is looking pensive, grasping a bottle of white spirit in his left hand and the rope for Lolita’s halter in the right. Pablo and I sit down next to him and wait, and I wonder whether to ask for a slug of the white spirit as a bit of Dutch courage.

Lolita is a thoroughbred donkey, with the mark of the Cross of Christ on her shoulders, given as a mark of honour for services rendered to Mary. She stands about chest-high to me and weighs about three hundredweight. Normally docile, now she senses that something is afoot, (literally in her case,) and stands nervously stamping alternate back legs. I suspect she is warming up in preparation to kick me. The four old men on the wall opposite shout across to Antonio, asking who I am. They often do this; talk about me as if I don’t exist and can’t speak Spanish. One of them, drunk as a skunk, wanders across to inspect me and the donkey.

‘Does he speak Spanish?’ he asks Antonio nodding his head in my direction.

‘Yes,’ I interrupt.   ‘I am the bastard son of Antonio that he sired while he was in Germany.’

Antonio says nothing.

The man nods knowingly and asks me where I live. He has a pair of false teeth which don’t fit and which jump about in his mouth completely out of synch with his lips, clacking like punctuation marks during every utterance. I can’t understand a word, but it doesn’t matter as he doesn’t know what he is saying either. Antonio keeps dumb and leaves me to it. He’s worried about Lolita.

Eventually the farrier’s Land Rover arrives and he jumps out and walks across to the old men to have a chat, ignoring us completely. When he is finished he strolls back to us and looks at Lolita, shaking his head sagely.

‘Ormigitas!’ he says, looking at the painfully swollen leg and goes for his tools.

‘Who is going to hold her?’ he asks on his return.

‘He is,’ says Antonio, pointing at me.

‘Come on then,’ the farrier says and I know that my moment of truth has come.

We start with the good leg. I lift it as I’ve seen John Wayne do it in the films, and lock it tight under my arm and against my leg. Lolita is docile and the farrier, using a ferocious pair of pincers, clips about half an inch off the unshod hoof. So far so good.

‘Look,’ he says proudly, pointing to a discoloured portion of the newly exposed hoof. ‘Ormigatas!! Like I said.’

Then he gets a knife from his pocket and begins to dig them out. Lolita is not happy about this and struggles to escape. But I have my life at stake here and she can’t move too much. When he is finished gouging a hole in the hoof he asks Antonio for the white spirit and pours it into the hole. Lolita objects violently and tries to kick the farrier who skips away and tells me to put the leg down.

Now it is time for the other leg. This is the swollen one and looks painful. When I go to pick it up Lolita scurries away. The farrier and Antonio bring her back into position and hold her still, looking at me expectantly. They obviously assume that every Englishman is a gentleman with a string of horses and that this is an everyday occurrence for me. I take a deep breath, realise that England’s honour is at stake, grab the infected leg, bend and lock it firmly against my body and leg and hold my breath. Lolita is snorting like mad, and the farrier is starting to sweat.

‘Hold her tight,’ he says and begins his clipping.

She tries to hop away on her other leg, but can’t. The hoof cut, the farrier again produces his knife and begins to dig out the ormigitas in this hoof. This infected wound is obviously painful and Lolita gets ever more skittish. The farrier works frantically to finish, and having done so, reaches for the white spirit.

The rest is a blur. The white spirit went into the open, infected wound. Lolita lost it big time and tried to kick the farrier with the leg I was holding. I felt it coming and locked my body rigid, with the result that the rear leg, instead of shooting out backwards, straightened and lifted Lolita’s aft end about a foot off the ground. The farrier was off on his toes, Antonio suddenly found himself holding the halter of a donkey doing a handstand, and I had the whole three hundredweight of enraged Lolita resting on my knee. The old men all gasped in amazement and wonder at this apparent circus trick performed by the guiri and the donkey and the drunk’s false teeth clacked applause. Poor Lolita, realising that something was amiss, tried to cross-kick me with the unfettered leg, failed miserably and came down with one leg on the pavement, two in the road and one held by an orange demon. She wobbled there, completely off-balance, as confused as the rest of us and turned to look at me with vengeance in her eye.

Well, this orange demon knows when to run away and fight another day, and he did so, with as much aplomb as he could muster. Antonio was bewildered by it all, the old men appreciative. The farrier looked at me uncertainly, unsure whether to offer me a job or not.

And Pablo looked at me with awe and said,


I took the leading rein from Antonio and walked Lolita around in a circle while he paid the farrier. When he had finished I told him I had to be off as there was something I had to do. And there was. I went back to the house, had a long, cold beer, sat on the step, wondered what I would be asked to do next week, and would my retirement always be like this? If the word gets round the village, and it will, will I be called on to hold all the mules for the farrier?

I say again,

I hate mules, donkeys and horses.

P.S. Carmen has just read this and told me that I’m deaf and the donkey is not called Lolita, but Mulita which means Little Female Mule. I thought Antonio was getting a bit soft, giving one of his animals a name, when his cats are called Gata and his dog is called La Perra. But I shall call her Lolita from now on, which will give Antonio something to tell the rest of the village about.