I don't have a photo of Vanessa... unfortunately, but here's a very nice one of the sheep. Thanks, Maggie.
It’s a new beginning, another one. It’s late February and I am prostrated by la gripe, man-flu… laid low to the extent that I am unable to function normally and am thus reduced to writing blogs. These things happen from time to time and it’s nothing to get worried about, but there’s a lot of coughing going on, inordinate quantities of mucus, a wretched weakness and much sneezing. This last I like a lot, and in a sense it makes the whole thing worthwhile, because it makes me think of Vanessa Blackwell. I should explain…
Vanessa Blackwell, whom I haven’t laid eyes on since I was eighteen, is the girl I have thought of more than any other in my whole life – apart from the Wife, that is – and all because of a most singular event which I shall now relate to you.
The more assiduous followers of my witterings will remember that I was educated at one of those establishments conceived to prepare men to run the Empire (British). It was a boys’ boarding school, and thus, until I turned up one late summer morning at the co-educational Crawley College of Knowledge, I had only the sketchiest notions of what a girl was, and still less of what they were actually for.
Imagine, then, the author, fresh from public school, taking his seat nervously halfway up a tower block in Crawley new town, for his first ‘Liberal Studies’ class. I was dressed in what I considered to be bohemian style: unwashed jeans, rabbit-fur coat and grey felt hat. In the classroom were a score or so of louts making a lot of noise and fooling about. They made me feel uneasy.
All of a sudden the classroom door flew open and banged against the wall. Every head swivelled; a pen dropped with a crash like thunder into the portentous silence that engulfed us, as we took in the dazzling apparition at the door. We had none of us ever seen anything like it, and never, never would we see such a thing again. For there stood none other than Vanessa Blackwell herself, disdainfully appraising us. She was slender, and willowy with the shape of a woman, and she moved like the back legs of a colt. The eyes that so insolently held our drooling gaze were witches’ green, and her curling blonde hair cascaded down across the skin-tight black velvet minidress that she had somehow contrived to wriggle into.
There was a sharp intake of breath from each lug and lout in unison, culminating in a long low groan; then the utter silence reasserted itself. This, then, was a girl, and this was what they were for: she exuded raw sex, and she had each and every one of us males utterly bewitched.
For an instant longer she held our gaze… as each of us longed against longing for her to sit beside us.
Then, very delicately, she sneezed.
“Did you know,” she said, with a toss of her curls, “that the intensity of a woman’s sneeze is in inverse proportion to the intensity of her orgasm?”
Vanessa Blackwell, I shall never forget… and I’m sure that there was not another lumpen lug in that classroom who ever will forget either.
Anyway, as a consequence of this illuminating little episode, I have thought in a salacious way of Vanessa Blackwell every time I have sneezed since the age of eighteen. That was forty two years ago. In an average week one might sneeze, I suppose, thirty times (with me they come in threes). In a week with the man-flu heavy upon one it might be more than three hundred times. The man-flu hits you about once a year, so call it fifty one thirties and one three hundred: that’s 1,830; now multiply that by forty two and you get seventy six thousand eight hundred and sixty times that Vanessa in that slinky black dress has sashayed into my view. I think that may be even more than I’ve thought in that way about the Wife…
Things have not been as good as they might on the domestic harmony front ever since the accursèd boar broke into and laid waste the Wife’s tobacco patch. This was one of that class of cataclysm that is deemed, for some unfathomable reason, to be my fault. I managed to save a few of the plants though, and they are hanging now, attractively arrayed, beneath the tin roof on the patio. It’s a shame; the tobacco harvest would have been good.
The tomatoes on the other hand have been poor this year – all sorts of blemishes and diseases and absolutely no flavour… and a summer without tomatoes is no summer at all. I shall let you into a secret: the gazpacho that featured in the picture that headed my last article came from a box. The first time that I have been reduced to such a scurvy shift in twenty five years… and the worst thing about it is that it was delicious. And when I think of the hours that I spend every week in the summer gathering fresh vegetables and herbs and then pounding the daylights out of them in the pestle and mortar… well, one wonders. It was cheap, too.
There’s usually some sort of compensation though, and this year it was cucumbers. We had a prodigious crop, cucumbers coming out of our ear’oles. But there’s only so much you can do with a cucumber: tzatziki, cucumber soup, cucumber stir-fry, cucumber sorbet… As summer drew to a close we never wanted to see another cucumber, but still they came, like beached green zeppelins all over the vegetable patch.
We flew to England last week for a family affair in the West Country. We checked our bag in; it weighed twenty two kilos.
‘You’ll have to pay extra,’ said the girl on the desk.
‘What’s in the bag?’ I asked the Wife; packing is her department.
‘Cucumbers,’ she said.
‘Cucumbers?!’ I cried, aghast. ‘Why on earth are we taking cucumbers on a plane?’
‘Presents for people; it’s a good way of getting rid of them.’
‘Will you be paying the extra at all? It’s fifty Euros,’ said the girl, getting a little tetchy now, as there was a big queue behind us.
‘Not bloody likely!’ I said. ‘Fifty Euros for a couple of kilos of cucumbers? I’ll put them in the hand baggage.’
‘Cucumbers are not allowed in the cabin,’ said the girl, getting officious.
This of course is absurd. Whoever heard of anyone hijacking a plane with a cucumber? But it wasn’t her fault and besides, she had a nice smile, so I offered them to her.
‘We’re not allowed to accept gifts from passengers.’
I wasn’t going to dump them in the bin, so I tried Starbucks and the other purveyors of vile coffee. Predictably enough they were not interested; after all, what would a coffee-shop want with a cucumber?
I wandered the concourse for a time in search of a home for the fruit (yes, fruit) but to no avail. A man at an airport brandishing cucumbers seems to invite only suspicion and, indeed, contumely.
I’m not much of a stockman. In spite of working with them for some forty years, sheep all look more or less the same to me. But occasionally you do come across a great sheep, one that stands head and shoulders above the flock. Such a creature is Belle. She’s known as Belle because at the moment she is the only sheep with a bell… thus Belle. The layman might wonder from time to time how one chooses the sheep to hang the bells on. It’s like this: if a ewe gets too fat, it’s often hard to get her in lamb (pregnant). One way of slimming down a fat ewe is to put a big bell on her. So each time she lowers her head to take a munch of grass, she finds the bell hanging in the way, and her teeth cannot reach the luscious morsel to sever it with a view to mastication, and subsequent regurgitation and rumination.
Sheep learn fast though, probably as a consequence of not having a great deal to think about, so they soon learn to lay the bell down, tip it on its side, and bite. Of course this takes longer than normal unencumbered grazing, so they quickly slim down enough to enjoy the attentions of the ram, who tends to prefer his ewes slender and shapely.
Belle was the fattest ewe in the flock when I last hung the bell; she also seemed to possess what I can only describe as a positive attitude – although it’s hard to attribute this sort of thing to a sheep.
During the past month half the flock has lambed, and I have shut them in to keep an eye on them. Belle, who was clearly soon to lamb, stayed with the outside flock and ranged by day and night over the hills behind the farm. A week ago the flock came down in silence; Belle had stayed on the hill, obviously having lambed. I went up to look for her but to no avail.
‘She’s a good mother that one,’ said Manolo the Hired Hand. ‘She’ll look after her lamb and bring it down when she’s ready.’
A week passed and not a sign of Belle. I was beside myself with worry and grief for the loss of a great sheep – to say nothing of the bell.
‘That’s the end of that one,’ said Manolo. ‘I saw four foxes at la Herradura this morning.’
I groaned, for I had seen two foxes that very morning at the top of the hill. A fox will take a new born lamb; it looked like bad news.
And then today there was a jaunty bongling, and tripping down the hill came Belle with a lamb at her heels. She had given birth to and protected the little creature high on a hillside that was seething with hungry foxes. That is a great sheep. I shall keep her lamb for breeding and call him Bill.
Now I know that this is hardly the most topical of blogs… but I really ought to get something banged out, and faute de mieux, I thought this might fit the bill . It all started when I was asked by no less a personage than Maxim Gorky, to write an account of the 27th of September. The deadline was the 15th of October, which I managed to keep to. Of course it wasn’t really Maxim Gorky who asked me; he’s long gone, now… but the idea was his, and there have been numerous attempts to keep his idea rolling. Two years ago twentyseven women writers were asked to record their 27th of September, and this year twenty seven blokes – amongst whom me – have done it. I guess the book will be published sometime next year. So here goes:-
THE TWENTY SEVENTH OF SEPTEMBER
The Wife and Me, looking colourful
And then the twenty seventh rolled around like I knew it would. Of course, in the way that these things inevitably turn out, it was set to be the least auspicious way to spend a day that I can think of. I toyed with the idea of writing about the day before, or the day after, and even – perish the thought – of just gathering bits and pieces from earlier or later days and cobbling them together and pretending that the result really was my 27th of September – (3*, 3*)… ooh, and the digits of 2010 add up to three, thus:- 3*, 3*, 3*. From a numerological point of view the 27th of September 2010 is powerful magic. It would not be wise to mess with it; there might be hideous unforeseen retribution, and besides, what would Maxim Gorky think?
So I bit the bullet, and here I am setting out to record that commonplace and ordinary day. I didn’t take any notes, though; it was not that sort of a day, and when finally the evening came, I was too exhausted even to hold a pen, so I am relying on my memory. It was, after all, only yesterday.
It was the opening hours of that day, from midnight on, steeped as I was in meat and wine, that laid me so low. I finished the evening with a pacharán, in a vain attempt to burn off some of the pig that I had just eaten, much of which was still stuck in the interstices of my teeth. After just one copa though, we left that dim red-lit bar, saying goodnight to Maiquel and Kiko, who thought we were aguafiestas. As we tripped down the cold stone street my arm slipped comfortably around Ana’s slim shoulders, just like a hundred thousand times before. That would be ten times a day for thirty five years and more. I’m a very physical person; sometimes it would be more than ten times.
As always, I ran up the four flights of stairs, racing against Ana in the lift. I see stairs as an opportunity for a little physical exertion, so that when I’m not actually running up and down stairs, I can indulge myself with a little more wine and a little more good food, with less probability of becoming a toad of immobility. Ana knows that one of these days she will find me red and bursting and dead of a heart attack in mid flight. She’s probably right, but until then she indulges my childish behaviour and never fails to laugh as the lift doors open to reveal me leaning against the wall, apparently bored with waiting, and yawning… but secretly panting. I think she loves me.
This time it was easy: it was a very slow lift, and wasted a lot of time telling you that the doors were closing, and then that the doors were opening, things that would be obvious to anybody but a complete halfwit. Again I slipped my arm around her shoulders as we padded down the carpeted corridor to room 406.
“And don’t try any funny business,” she admonished as she fumbled with the key in the lock. “Your breath smells like the fumes from a badger’s arse.” I didn’t want to let on, but I was far too stuffed with pig and fuddled with wine even to be thinking of “funny business”.
Instead we slipped, the pair of us, into a crapulous sleep, as the waning moon cast silver shadows on the golden stone of the city, and the drunks hooted and groaned in the gardens down by the river.
The next I saw of that day was the pale blue sky of its eight-o-clock. I didn’t much like the look of what I saw, so I rolled over and went back to sleep till ten. And then, at ten, I slipped on a linen shirt, same blue as the sky, so I looked like the day. It was a cheap shirt: three, if I remember rightly, for €10. I think it was a second as a consequence of being too short. It barely tucked into my trousers, but it was OK so long as I didn’t bend over or sit down.
I beat the lift down the five flights to the breakfast room (in the basement), and by the time Ana arrived I had poured the orange juices and ordered the fried eggs. Bacon, sausage and toast with butter… it’s a breakfast I wouldn’t dream of having at home, but in a hotel… well, you’d be a fool not to go for it.
Ana sorted out the packing and the room, and, to get me out from under her feet, sent me out to get some money from the cash machine to pay our laundry bill, which came to €4,35. This took me rather longer than an hour and a half, by the end of which I had succeeded in saving us no less than three Euros in commission. I was by this time sweaty and irritated, but felt that it was all worthwhile, as I had only put €6 into the pockets of the fuckers at the bank as opposed to the nine they had originally demanded.
Ana waited by the aqueduct with the bags and the crates of wine, while I fetched the car from the underground car park. What was I thinking? I suppose in an intimate diary one ought to write about what one is thinking… but don’t forget that I’m not feeling so good: I have a hangover. I don’t think I was thinking anything. I remember that I relished the deep growl of the engine of the car, and the screeching of the tyres on the newly painted floor of the car park. And I was wondering just which parts of my body would be hurting the most at the end of the eight hour drive I was about to undertake. Would it be the muscles at the top of my outer thighs, the already bruised coccyx, or the place where my shoe dug into my heel?
But maybe I was thinking… maybe I was thinking of the risk you take every time you get out on the highway. You’re safer up in an aeroplane than you are strapped into your ton of hurtling steel and plastic and glass, with only the quickness of your reactions and your innate judgement of speed and distance to protect you from life threatening inanimate objects and the thousands of crazies and incompetents who inhabit the roads. Best to stay at home if you can… but sometimes you just have to get out there and go.
So we rocketed away from Segovia, heading south, on a sunny day with the sky above us laced with vapour trails. We had not even been racing along those long and lonely roads for as much as half an hour when we saw the terrible thing.
Pieces of car in the middle of the road. I jammed on the brakes and slowed right down. A car upside down on the hard shoulder; four cars stopped; people running; a blonde woman throwing up her hands in the conventional depiction of horror. This was the unforeseen end of somebody’s journey, the beginning of a period of agony for some loved ones somewhere who did not even know yet. Should we stop and get involved? No, there were already a dozen people there; there was nothing we would be able to do.
Shocked, we travelled a little more slowly, and in silence for a while. There are millions of deaths every day in the world, some peaceful, some violent, some atrocious, but we still find it hard to be reminded of our mortality. Fifteen minutes later we were back to 120 kph as the first signs for the M50 came into view.
‘Shall we listen to the story?’ I suggested quietly.
Ana put the tape into the machine, and we were lulled by the gentle refined voice of Fay Weldon reading ‘Mantrapped’, a dazzling novel where the writer weaves her own autobiography into the bizarre story of her fictional characters. Soon we were captivated and still moving fast towards the south, in the sort of trance that comes with great speed, a mild hangover and fine writing beautifully read.
‘Do you want a rotten banana?’ asked Ana solicitously.
‘No,’ I said absently. The idea was not particularly appealing.
‘An apple perhaps?’
‘What are they like?’
‘Then I won’t, but thanks all the same.’
I started to feel sleepy, and shifted from one buttock to another. I leaned on the sill; I hung from the strap; I drove with both hands on the wheel, then just the right hand, then the left, with the right hand gripping the gear stick. I leaned across and squeezed Ana’s knee. I sat up; I wriggled down; I leaned my head against the headrest; I scratched parts of my body that did not really need scratching. At Turleque, just south of Tembleque – such names! – we turned off the road for a break. Bright primary colours, like McDonalds, the scurvy spirit of the age… meaningless muzak, a cod Don Quijote theme. We both went for the ‘Dulcinea’, which consisted of a coffee, a tostada and an orange juice, and very nice it was too. We drenched our tostadas in oil and tomato and gazed across the field of cut barley to where an endless procession of trucks and cars hammered, seemingly through the cornfield, on their way to Andalucía. I filled up with diesel while Ana cleaned the windscreen, which was so thick with squashed insects that I could hardly see out of it at all.
The break dissipated my sleepiness and we joined the moving throng again. At Despeñaperros I could sense Ana’s nervousness as I eased past the slow trucks on those dangerous bends. I don’t like to frighten her, but you have to get in front of these fuckers or else you’ll never get home… and besides, there’s the testosterone. Across the muddy Guadalquivir we raced and down into the olive groves of Jaén. The beautiful sierra to the south of the city appeared misty blue in the late afternoon sunshine. We started to feel that we were coming home, and then there were more sierras in the autumn afternoon sunlight: the Sierra Sur, the Sierra de Haranas, and finally Sierra Nevada. I get quite emotional when I see the sierras, coming from a country that doesn’t have any. ‘Just think,’ I said to Ana, ‘we live on the southern slopes of that.’
But she just grunted, because she didn’t want to miss the important bit that Fay Weldon was reading.
We stopped at Mercadona in Santa Fe for bread, bananas, beans and dog tucker. All supermarkets are villains, making the lives of farmers miserable by paying rock bottom prices, but Mercadona may be one of the best of a bad bunch. The products are good and the staff are always friendly and, as far as one can see, contented. What I don’t like is the lighting, and the mirrors on every column. I see myself coming and going and always illuminated by a light that is calculated to make tomatoes seem even redder than they already are. Now I am a very rubicund person; I don’t need the help of vegetable enhancing lights to make me look red. It’s not necessary: in other supermarkets, Carrefour, Alcampo, I look more or less like a normal human being. In Mercadona I see myself as a livid red head approaching from all sides, and, frankly, it depresses me.
The mirrors in the hotel in Segovia were not too good, either; they seemed designed to make a body look short and squat. So, I had started the day feeling short and squat, a condition exacerbated by the hangover. Now I was short and squat and bright red, with thin white hair. The accident we had witnessed to the north of Madrid, though, made me feel that even short and red and squat, I was lucky to be alive at all. But even so, I was longing to get home, where we have a mirror that makes you feel good about yourself.
As we emerged from the supermarket, yet another traffic drama was unfolding before us. A car was pulling out of its parking space just down the street, and the driver had left a jug half full of what looked like gazpacho on the roof. As he drove away it slipped and took up an alarming angle but did not fall off. It was a most precariously balanced situation. Everybody stared, transfixed; some hooted and hollered; a blonde woman put her hands to her mouth in the conventional gesture of horror, but a milder version than the morning’s event. Soon the whole street was full of people shouting and laughing. Cars in both directions sounded their horns – you’d have thought that Spain had won the football again… and through it all the gazpacho driver sailed blithely on down the street, his half finished jug of soup teetering desperately on the edge of the roof. He turned the corner at the end of the street, and we never saw him again. Somewhere, perhaps, a woman was grieving for her gazpacho.
Seven hours or so south of Segovia, the great sweeping curves of the arterial road give way to the twisting mountain roads of the Alpujarra, twisting like a sheep’s gut up into the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It’s like Africa down here: beautiful savage landscapes with thorns and rocks and thin, poor soil. I’m coming home, and it’s here that my soul finds repose, and with the low evening sunlight of 27 of September 2010, it was all I could do not to weep a little at the beauty of it all.
Holding a crate of finest Ribera del Duero under each arm, I crashed through the fly curtains into the house. And there I was… master of the house, tall and slim and with a normal human complexion. I wasn’t at all short and squat and red. I felt quite pleased with myself. We heated up some chili and rice and washed it down with one modest glass of wine. I toyed with the idea of taking up the pen and writing this day down… but I was too knackered. I cleaned my teeth and by eleven o clock I was in my own belovèd bed and heading down the road to sleep. And I was already fast asleep by the time the twenty seventh of September 2010 slipped away, never to be seen again.
I know it’s foolish, but when you get to my age (sixty next year and just wait: it’ll get you too) you develop these absurd idiosyncracies. One of these is that the doggs (which, along with blogg, I write with two ‘g’s) are always known as ‘the dogmas’… and of course by extension frogs become frogmas. I know it’s not terribly funny, but it keeps me amused.
The dogmas are Bumble, the big one, and Bao, who was abandoned in the freezing rain at a petrol station in Granada, rescued by a home for abandoned doggs, and ended up here. Bao is called Bao because we got another dogg the same day, whom we caled Bil. Thus Bil and Bao: Bilbao a big industrial city in the north. People who surround themselves with animals often think it amusing to give their animals the names of towns. Back in England we had a sheep called Orpington.
Thus I introduce the protagonist of this blogg, the dogg Bao. Bao was rolling about on his back on the living room carpet this morning, trying, I suppose, to rid himself of the attentions of a flea. Looking down I noticed there was a scorpion on his belly. I flicked it off with my babouche… whereupon it vanished. I crawled about the room, peering here and peering there, but all to no avail.
I soon forgot about it though, and we breakfasted with a scorpion scuttling about under the table amongst our feet. We’re used to this sort of thing; there’s always a scorpion about somewhere. In summer they lurk beneath stones, enjoying the heat and drought, which is what they like best, but in the autumn they like to come into the house, along with all the other arachnids in the valley.
In the summer Ana, the Wife, was stung on the elbow by a scorpion… in the bed. Under the breakfast table is one thing; in the connubial bed is quite another. Me, I lit out of there like a scalded cat when she told me, and stood by the bed quaking in my babouches. I wasn’t going to take a chance on the bugger moving over to my side and having a crack at me… o lord no!
Perhaps I ought to point out here that the sting of our scorpions is not lethal; they’re not the big black african variety that kills you, Pandinus africanus (see “Almond Blossom
Appreciation Society” p.119), but the altogether much more manageable Buthus occitanus. Its sting is far from pleasant, though; Ana said it was like a couple of wasp stings or a bit worse, and it lasted about twelve hours. She is stoical about things like that, and acted as if nothing had happened, apart from removing the scorpion from the bed and giving it to the chickens. (See “Driving Over Lemons” for an account of the curious relationship between the scorpion and the humble hen.)
Oddly enough we both have a half witted conviction that you can mitigate against this sort of eventuality by keeping your karma in good shape. To this end Ana saves wasps from drowning in the doggbowl, and I saved an abejorro, a beautiful big blue carpenter bee, from a lingering death in the swimming pool… whereupon it stung me. I still have a witless belief in invincibility, though, and pad about the house barefoot in the dark, in the certain knowledge that there are scorpions waiting for me. It lends a delicious frisson of uncertainty to my nocturnal perambulations.
There may be those among you who wonder why I am so sloppy about getting these blogs out on time. If I have an excuse… and it has to be said, it’s a pretty spurious one, then it’s because I am snowed under with what is known as ‘unfinished business’.
I was staying with friends in London. On the night I arrived Richard was going out to his men’s group.
‘Do you want to come along?’, he asked me.
‘I don’t think so,’ I thought aloud. ‘What will you be doing?’
‘We’re going to discuss “unfinished business”.’
‘Hmm… then I shan’t come. What d’you mean anyway – unfinished business?’
‘Unfinished business is a broad term for all that stuff you’ve left undone that you ought to have done, all the work, tasks, jobs, relationships – everything you ought to finish but have left unfinished… and what it all does is builds insidiously up and harms you.’
‘Oh,’ I said blithely, ‘I don’t have any of that stuff.’
‘I bet you do,’ said Richard, perhaps a trifle needled by my smugness. ‘If you cast about, I know you’ll find a whole load of unfinished business…’
‘Maybe,’ I said, thinking about it a bit. ‘There’s about eighteen months of unanswered correspondence, e-mails and paperwork… does that count?’
‘Of course it counts. And I bet you’ll find that that’s just the tip of the iceberg – and it’s probably affecting your health too.’
My initial instinct was to dismiss all this as the codswallop it so patently was, but even so I cast about a bit in the darker recesses of my mind. As it happens I was suffering at the time from a rather painful infection that affected one of those parts of the body about which one prefers not to speak. The limb in question was becoming increasingly inflamed, even to the extent of making it rather painful to walk. Ana, the Wife, was very understanding about it and seemed to accept my explanation that the condition had been caused by some wind-blown particle – which indeed it had. But perhaps Richard was right… maybe the distressing condition that was afflicting me had been brought about by the callous and sloppy attitude I have to my correspondence heap, which was on the verge of reaching critical mass. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with this concept: when a correspondence heap goes critical, you toss the whole lot in the bin and start again with a clean slate.)
When Richard came back from his men’s group I owned up, and presented him with a long list of unfinished business.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘We’re moving. Now you’ve acknowledged this lamentable state of affairs we’re halfway there. Next you’ve got to do something about it. You must promise me that by the next time we see one another… which by my calculations should be June the eighth – you must have sorted out all your backlog of unfinished business, especially what will by then be two years of unanswered letters.’
I agreed to this draconian solution in the hope that it might revive the sagging fortunes of my poor organ. Fortunately though, on June the seventh the correspondence heap went critical and I was able to tell Richard with a clear conscience, that I had dealt with it.