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