Sunday, 30 December 2012


On the 21st June 1969, I was sitting in the only bar in Frigiliana which had a television set and where everyone had congregated to watch the historic landing on the moon.
 At 3 0'clock in the morning half of those who were sitting there waiting for something exciting to happen had fallen asleep with the boredom of the programme. Diagrams had been shown, scientists no one understood had talked for hours about spaceships and rockets, and the only person benefiting from the occasion was Antonio, the bar owner, who hadn’t stopped serving black coffees and cognacs to keep everyone awake.
 Then, from outside, came the familiar clip clopping sound of a mule cloming up the steep cobbled street to the bar. It was Paco with his beast of burden on the way to his vineyards up on the Southern slope of the mountain. Paco, if not over bright, was a hard worker who trekked up there once a week and stayed for several days minding his crops.
 He tied the mule's rope to the bars of a window and came into the bar, straw hat askew on his balding head, his huge teeth protruding beyond the lower lip, his gums receding, his fingers and hands ingrained with the dark earth he had been working all his life.
 He stared bewildered at his fellow workers sitting there in the comparative darkness.
 'Que pasa ? Why aren’t you all on your way to your fields or in bed with your fat ugly wives ?'
he grumbled at everyone.
 'The moon,' came the reply from a few tired voices.
 'The moon ?' Paco repeated, then, after a long pause, 'What of the moon ?'
 'The moon is on television,' Antonio said pouring him an anis seco and hot chocolate.
 Paco stared at the television high up in a corner of the bar. There was a picture of a space ship door opening and a man in a rubber suit and helmet coming slowly down the steps.
 'Ahora ! Ahora ! Ahora !' the commentator shouted with great excitement. 'Now, now it’s happening. Now the first man ever is landing on the moon !'
Puzzled, Paco looked from the television screen to the audience to Antonio.'
'Children's television at this hour of the morning ?'
'The first man ever to land on the moon is doing so right now' Antonio informed him. 'It’s a major historic moment. Sit down and watch.'
 'A man on the moon ! It’s a film hombre !'
 'No Paco' Antonio said patiently, 'That man there, coming down the steps, is a real astronaut.  He was sent up there by rocket with two others. It’s happening right now.'
 Paco was unsettled
 'What’s he going to do up there ?'
 Antonio shrugged his shoulders unsure of the answer.
 'Well, what is he going to do up there ?'
 'He’s dancing,' someone in front of the set shouted, and the tension was relieved by laughter.
 The mule snorted outside.
 'A man on the moon ...' Paco muttered to himself. He drank his chocolate and downed the anis seco. He left the bar, went out into the roadway and looked up at the offending moon.
He untied the rope and led his mule on up the steep cobbled street.
Antonio picked up the empty glass and cup and put them in the sink. Then the clip clopping of the mule was heard coming down again.
'How is he going to get back, your man on the moon ?'  Paco, standing in the doorway, was truly concerned.
 'It’s very complicated' Antonio said. 'They have retro rockets which return the spaceship to earth'
 'But when ? The moon will be gone soon.'
 'It will only be going as far as we are concerned. It will only be going down behind the hills Paco. It will still be somewhere.'
 Paco’s brow creased with the pain of difficult thought.
 'What’s his name, the man on the moon ?'
 'I don’t know,' Antonio was getting  irritated, 'Some Americano.'
 'Does his mother know ?'
 'Does his mother know what ?'
 'Does his mother know that he’s up there ?'
 'Well of course she knows. The whole world knows ! What difference does it make ?'
 'Antonio,'  Paco said quietly, straightening up, 'I have been working in the campo since I was a niño. I know the moon, I have had conversations with the moon, I know what it does and what it does not do, but she might not understand.'
 'His mother ?'
 'Yes, his mother Antonio. His mother might not understand. When the moon has gone she may be afraid that he has gone with it. When it gets smaller, when there is only half of it, or a quarter of it, she might be afraid he could fall off. Would your mother understands it if you said you were going to the moon ?'
Antonio sighed deeply. 'These people know what they are doing.'
'I hope so,' Paco said turning away. 'I hope so.'
And when he was a little distance up the street, he stopped and shouted back.' I hope he had the sense to take a parachute !' 

Paco's mule
Antonio's bar

Monday, 24 December 2012


And so it was planned.
I was to go to London from Nerja in Spain to enjoy the Christmas merriment with my lovely daughter, her partner, his mother, her cat, the neighbours, their dog, and the fox at the bottom of the garden, and I packed some clean socks, a shirt of two, wrapped the presents - a Spanish fan, a couple of flamenco dolls, miniature bottles of sangria, a pair of castanets...the usual, then on my way to a lunch appointment with a couple of friends... suddenly, quite suddenly, in the street, a very unpleasant pain gripped me round the chest. It didn’t exactly suffocate me, it didn’t stop me breathing, but it was like having massive indigestion between the armpits and I, having read about such things in my medical dictionary, remembered a quote :
    Angina Pectoris is a condition where pain in the heart is caused
    by an inadequate blood supply to the heart muscle which may
    lead to a heart attack and instant death.
Well, it couldn’t happen to me, not at Christmas, not when I was about to go to lunch with friends and then London. So I ignored the malaise, joined my friends, didn’t eat too much,  the pain slowly disappeared and I thought little more about it.
On the way home, however the pain attacked me again.
I sat down on a conveniently close bench, doubled up, refused to believe that I was suffering from anything serious, but things got worse and I pressed the panic button.
With a hand shaking so much that I could hardly hold my mobile steady, I rang my son who lives close by, and weakly managed to mumble....'Matthew...I’m not feeling very well......'
He is one of those efficient young men who can be relied upon to summon up a fire brigade or SAS army unit within minutes and, within minutes, he was with me, bundled me into his car, whisked me off to the local clinic where a heavy duty male nurse took my pulse, stuck a number of electrocardiograph suckers on ankles, wrists and chest, pronounced me an emergency and ordered son to take father to the nearest  hospital forthwith.

 We were told to remain in 'Urgencia' for six hours during which I was given X-Rays, blood tests, ECGs and aortic angiograms while paramedics held my hand, my pulse, stuck state of the art thermometers in my ear and, eventually, informed me that I had had a heart attack, that I had to stay in the hospital for treatment till they were satisfied I had a chance of staying alive, would I get someone to get my pyjamas and toothbrush.
 'But I’m going to London tomorrow!' I protested. 'On Friday I’m going to see my daughter’s solo exhibition in a Chelsea Gallery.. On Saturday a family party.......'
 'Explain to your father that he is on deaths’s door and to just do as he is told,'  Matthew was instructed.

 A half hour later I found myself lying between lovely clean sheets with lovely fluffy pillows behind my head, various tubes emanating from a hole pierced in the top of my hand to a water bottle hanging above my head and four or five nurses circling my bed to make sure I had everything I needed.
 'Let go...' I told myself. 'You are beyond the point of no return...You are no longer in charge of your own life, what’s left of it, ....give in to those who know better than you...worry if you must about all the upheaval the cancellation of your London visit will cause to others but accept the fact that it is not your fault and there is absolutely nothing you can do about these new circumstances except die if you insist on rebelling.'

  So it was that this year’s Christmas has not turned out quite as it was planned. Melissa, my lovely daughter, flew over in a blind panic so we could cry over the tragedy together,  Nicolas, my older son winged his way over from Los Angeles, various members of the family made all the right noises and I felt like a complete fraud because the moment the first ECG suckers were planted on my breasts, the pain disappeared and never came back.

 I’m home now, after an anxious week, fit as a fiddle, providing I avoid salt in my food, never drink alcohol again and consume seven different kinds of pills for the rest of my life before breakfast. 
 I should add that on the 12th of the 12th of the 12th I had celebrated my 82nd birthday which, on learning this, prompted the surgeon who at one time during the proceedings inserted a couple of metal and plastic tubes into my circulatory system to say, 'At your age you have to expect setbacks.' 

Seasonal greetings to all and a big THANK YOU to the staff of the incredibly efficient hospital and to the lovely friends and relatives who where concerned for me.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Eve was English. If there was anyone who could overcome setbacks, rise above unpleasantness, ignore what she didn’t want to know and keep a stiff upper lip, it was her.  After I quite unnecessarily and stupidly told her that I had had an affair and she walked out of the house into the Frigiliana street, I watched her from an upstairs window, pause before straightening up, throw her cigarette away, stamp on it and walk off with a determination that suggested she had made a decision about the situation. Wether that decision was favourable for me or disastrous I, of course, had no idea.
 So I waited. I sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to imagine what she was thinking, what she was going through and managed to convince myself that what I had just told her, what I had just confessed, had been a shock but not that upsetting. It could, in fact, be a relief, a release for her from having to pretend that all was well between us when, for some months now it had not been.  On the other hand this was perhaps just wishful thinking on my part and the emptiness in the pit of my stomach made itself known again. Then I heard, with great relief, the boy's voices and laughter. I leapt to my feet, looked out of the window. They were coming home for lunch with Eve, all holding hands.
 So we sat down round the table on the terrace and had a happy meal as though nothing at all had happened and, once they had gone off to play again, Eve went to have a siesta which had become routine, leaving me to clear the plates and wash up.
 She never asked another question. My infidelity was never mentioned again. It was not forgotten, certainly not forgiven but, apart from several nights when it seemed to me that she deliberately turned her back on me in bed, the unsettling episode passed.

 We now started to look for a property to buy in earnest. We wanted an old village house which could be converted into something exceptional.
 After two days of asking around, an elderly man stopped us in the main square and said he had a ruin for sale which we might like to have a look at. We followed him up a cobbled alley to a large building behind the 16th century church. He pushed open a massive double door that was falling off its hinges and bid us enter.
 It wasn’t so much a ruin as a disaster area, and vast. The mud, boulder and stone walls were nearly a metre thick, the roof had collapsed, he suggested it might be wiser not to go up the stairs as the wood was rotten and the upper floors were dodgy, then he led us to a huge patio and up some steps to six large cement vats. With a smattering of Spanish, signs and waving of the hands, we gathered that we were in the pueblo’s ancient Moorish soap factory.
 We moved through an archway to what might have been termed a garden if there had been a bit of greenery and less dust, beyond this was a half acre rubbish tip.
 The old man looked at us and shrugged in way of asking if we were interested.
 I asked how much.
 'Wan tousand fife hondrid powns esstairlinge,' he said in badly rehearsed English.
  'For the house ?' I said.
  'For todo. La casa, el jardin, el campo. Todo.' The house, the garden the rubbish tip, everything, or so we understood. One thousand, five hundred pounds sterling.
 Eve and I managed not to exchange excited glances. If we’d understood correctly it was an incredible bargain.
 I made a face, I shrugged and told him we would let him know mañana.
 Twenty four hours of ceaseless discussion and endless calculations followed.
 The next day we went back to the ruin to take measurements. Once the vats were removed there was a surprisingly large area to play with and if the rubbish tip was cleared there would be room for a swimming pool and various terraces.
 We got down to drawing plans. The living room and an open plan kitchen would give onto a central patio. A master bedroom with en suite bathroom upstairs, a room each for the boys, a guest room, another bathroom. It was all possible.
 We made an offer, it was instantly accepted and word went round the village that we were completely off our heads.
 The next day, the old man introduced me to the best builder in Andalusia ( Manolo, his nephew ) and I took him straight to the ruin and showed him our plans on site.
 He looked around, sighed, shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigarette, puffed out a cloud of smoke and was kind enough to convey nothing derogatory when a slight prod of his finger caused a whole wall to collapse.
 There would be difficulties in getting the material up the narrow cobbled street, there was also no water nor electricity, but if I was ready to pay a little more up front his brother in law, the village plumber and electrician, would get these connected quickly. With five other cousins, an uncle and someone else’s father, he’d get what we wanted done. It would take six months. His estimated cost was incredibly low.
 We shook hands, There was no point in signing a contract, he didn’t value pieces of paper but he would start work as soon as I had got the deeds of the property and a permit to rebuild had been granted by the Ayuntamiento - the local Town Hall.
  It took six weeks, several trips to Malaga, countless photocopies of our birth certificates, passports and bank accounts before we had all the necessary documents in hand enabling Manolo and his seven men to start work half way through May.
 The Andalusians have the reputation of being slow, indolent workers. This is not so. Anyone making a study of their character will soon realize that they do not care a fig about success but that they will work very hard for is enough money not to work at all. 
 Five months and three days after they had started pulling down and rebuilding, our Spanish house was ready for us to move in. We arranged for our stored furniture in Somerset to be shipped over, bought  everything else that was more suitable for a house in the sun than for one in the rain and, once installed, turned our attention to planting the garden and building the longed for swimming pool.

1. The living room before renovation
2. The living room after