Thursday, 24 December 2015

Olive Groves and Lemons

A Spanish woman gave me two important lessons: how to be watchful of the people around you and how to be gracious with it; how to take pleasure in what you have and not what you think you can get. She said it was better to use wind-fallen apples than shaking the tree or picking those that felt ripe but weren't ready. Everything has a time, she said.
How M came to be living in England I don't know for I don't now remember if that information was ever shared. I vaguely recollect being told that this wasn't her native home and that the land she came from was warmer. Where they were olive groves and lemons. And that stuck because at school the girls played Oranges and Lemons said the Bells of St Clements in the tarmacked playground. The song sung whilst a neat pony-tailed, cotton-socked line skipped under the human steeple until someone was caught in the middle, their head chopped off.
M was just there, already a fixture, when my family moved in to the house next door in the mid 1980s. I was five, going on six. I can't recall our first meeting. Perhaps I was shy or concerned with other childish fancies, or perhaps I didn't give it a thought as my parents have always tried to be friendly; neighbourly as in running errands, being helpful, or talking over fences or walls, or in driveways and back gardens. Although they drew the line at inviting people in and only partially opened the door to Jehovah's Witnesses and double glazing salesmen to politely but firmly say 'Not interested thank you.' In other words, go on your way, don't bother us here, and they usually did with hang-dog expressions.
We hadn't moved far, ten minutes by car from my first known home, from my primary school, from my ageing paternal grandparents, but the neighbours were different here. Houses were semi-detached and not terraced, and kids didn't play out in the streets but in the large park at the end of the road. There was less camaraderie as if the rules you lived by before didn't apply or there was still a series of tests you had to pass.
We must have passed at some point, not with flying colours but with a grudged acceptance. We were obviously here to stay despite making little headway with relations on either side, including M who I came to like for all her eccentricities.
M, in her late 70s, was a tough nut to crack. A sun-dried widow, harmless and deadly. Small in height, dumpy in figure, a warm brown colour and wrinkle-faced with a temper similar to that of a scorpion. The English sun had aged, not sweetened her. She accused people of stealing personal property and liked poisoning plants. That was how she welcomed you to the neighbourhood, although I don't know if she tried that ruse on us. I guess she must have. But then the family on the other side were complainers: you couldn't sneeze without the mother coming round to request we keep the noise down. Our old dog was regularly told off for playful barking; she was not a fan of animals or of the shared walls that she once dramatically declared gave her a 'splitting headache.' But when they moved we got W and I and Tiny, their Yorkshire terrier, and it couldn't have been more different. And although all three passed on a good twenty years ago I've never forgotten them.
M, though was always an enigma. She drew you in. Unwillingly. Because she was like a nursery rhyme or a Roald Dahl figure - she could be nice, she could be horrid. You could feel revolted by her or you could want to follow her like the Pied Piper. She was a character that stirred your curiosity. Sometimes she wanted to engage, sometimes she made it plain she wanted distance. She was lonely, but then resented the intrusion when she had invited it. From inside, she observed outside goings-on; outside, she acted surreptitiously. But she did thaw towards us. Somewhat.
Perhaps even as an English child I was narrow-minded for M was not like the Spain I believed she came from. Sun, sea and sand. Siestas, fishing ports and villas. Tapas, paella, and sangria. Catholicism. The Spain she epitomised was the salty tang of olives and the citrus of lemons.

Picture Credits: 
Spanish Woman, Benidorm '68 courtesy of P R Francis
Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh