Visitor From The Past

Visitor From the Past

By Lawrence Bohme

Poet and translator Lawrence Bohme reminisces in five essays on the summer of 1960 and his discovery of the Montefrio which became his home. In the last three essays Laurence returns to Montefrio in 1985, this time to live in the idealic 'Cortijo de los Siete Olivos'.

VI. Visitor from the past

Up to the age of 40, it had always been my philosophy that it was best never to stop still or even look back; it was the code of the footloose adventurer. But upon reaching mid-life, the feeling that I had already seen quite a bit led me to start doing just those two things. In fact, I began to want something I had never really had: a home.

I returned to Europe, from the West Indies, in 1981, and spent the first two years in France. I had gone there hoping to continue with my arts and crafts business on the Cote d'Azur but, for purely economic reasons, ended up becoming a Unesco translator in Paris instead. Then I unexpectedly received a modest but regular monthly sum of money - the source of which is a story in itself - which made it possible to live (and write) without working for quite a few years, but not in Paris. I asked my benefactor - who knew me well - where I should go and the answer was "Spain". So as soon as I had settled some long-pending problems I went to have a look.

When, that damp spring morning, I got on the bus at the El Tocón railway station - fifth stop on the Granada-Algeciras line - it had been almost 21 years that I left Montefrio for the last time. A few letters had been exchanged soon after my departure, because Lilo had melodramatically written to Maria the peanut peddler that "Lorenzo's heart is dead", and the naïve lady went about announcing my biological death, until a letter commissioned by Manolo reached me in Paris asking for a confirmation. I recognised my ex-girlfriend's sturm und drang and wrote back explaining that all she meant was that I was a heartless bastard for having left her. But after that, I relegated Montefrio to the magical past, and all contact was lost. There were so many other things, and places, that vied for my attention, then!

Manolo was the person I most wanted to see but, since he would now be 70, it was my turn to feel worried, as the bus began to climb north through the pine forests. I turned to the elderly farmer sitting next to me, in his grey cotton suit and straw hat, and asked nervously if Manuel Avila was still alive. His answer itself was a spiritual return to Montefrio:"¡Si lo está", he answered enthusiastically, "y muy buena persona es!" (Yes, and a fine fellow he is too). People here speak in set rhetorical phrases created for each specific situation, and interpret one another's statements in the same way. To have just answered straightforwardly "Yes, he is alive" without adding a word of praise might give the impression that he wouldn't regret it if Manolo were dead.

Having read and heard so much about how Spain had changed since the sixties, I was satisfied to see that although Montefrio had changed too, it had done so much less than the other places I had seen on my journey south from Madrid. There was the same unspoiled countryside and spectacular approach, as the castle and village seem to rise up from the olive groves in the valley below; and although the odd-shaped plaza was still odd-shaped, the warped, lumpily whitewashed fronts of the buildings had almost all been rebuilt and straightened out. It was like seeing an old man who had just been fitted with a set of disturbingly perfect false teeth.

One thing struck me immediately: the large black wooden cross which had been affixed to the front of the great round church, with the list of names of right-wing Civil War victims "vilely murdered by the Marxists", had been removed. I might not have remembered it if it were not for the fact that the cross had left a ghost-like, pale silhouette on the ochre-coloured stone. In fact, just a few days before, the villagers had voted in a Communist mayor, whose first act was to remove Franco's intolerable war memorial. But since the decision of the consejo had only called for the removal of the cross, the workers were unable to sand or grind away the mark it had left - which, to my mind, created a much more powerful effect than the cross itself.

The house we had lived in still stood in 1983, with the same door which we had unlocked with the big key we were given in Cordoba by the woman who owned it then, La Barranquilla. Manolo no longer lived in the same house nearby, but the woman there - whom I recognised as our cleaning woman - told me he would not be found in his current house either, but at his sister's on the Calle Alta, above his nephew's shoe shop. A little boy was instructed to take me there. A few minutes later I stood in a sombre room lined with shoe boxes, where a plump, balding man excitedly said he remembered me from when he was 10 years old, before rushing upstairs to call his uncle.

Manolo was not so enchanted, and with good reason - I had never once written in all that time. He glanced at me unsmilingly and sat down without saying a word. For a moment I wretchedly thought he was going to tell me to go to hell, but after a while he grunted "Pensé que te habían matao - I thought they had killed you". It was another one of those rhetorical phrases which they use to neutralise potentially embarrassing situations. I began to apologise, but he motioned me to stop. He had rapped my knuckles for being such a rascal, but he knew he would have done just the same; and what I had been up to for the past 20 years didn't interest him anyway. In fact, he immediately made it clear that there were only two subjects which he felt could possibly interest anyone: flamenco singing, and his ailments, and without further ado began lecturing me on both of them almost at once, a bit of one and then a bit of the other. The result was very entertaining, especially when he illustrated his points with a burst of cante hondo...

He looked very dignified in his retirement clothes, dark suit with prize-winning gold guitar-shaped pin in the lapel and neatly trimmed grey-white hair. He told me that he had been recently installed with a pace-maker (the villagers joked about it, saying he "had a guitar in his breast" ) and suffered from a host of afflictions which made it totally impossible for him to sing - in spite of which, as I have said, he sang, in short bursts, all day long. In fact, Manolo had become such a hypochondriac that when I told him so one day, he pounced avidly on what he thought was a new pathological condition and shouted, "You're right, I've got that too!", until I explained what it meant and his triumph turned to bitter indignation.

Long-suffering Maria was in Barcelona taking care of their two sons, who worked in a factory, and I was told that they now officially resided there. But since Manolo couldn't stand Barcelona, he in fact spent half of his time back in the village, sleeping in the empty house but spending the day at his sister's, above the shoe shop. For the tormented artist, Montefrio was the lesser of two evils: when I imprudently asked him if he was "happier" in Montefrio or Barcelona, hoping he would say Montefrio, he looked at me indignantly and snarled, "¡No estoy bien en ninguna parte! - I'm not happy anywhere!". I knew what he meant. One has to live somewhere on the face of the earth, and for Manolo - as well for me, it soon proved - Montefrio was it.

But the one who made me decide to return to stay was kind, innocent, brotherly Cristobal, the panaero who delivered the bread to the cortijos. Early the next morning I was sitting on my bed in the Fonda, where I had taken a room for the night (the same room No. 5 where Lilo had beaten her head on the tiled floor) when the staircase reverberated with a series of great shouts; someone had told the good man I was back, and he had raced over from the bakery. He still looked just like one of his rough loaves of bread, except with a little more flour sprinkled on top and more yeast in the dough. I was hugged, stroked, shouted at, hugged again and, within minutes, bundled into the already ancient van in which he now delivered his bread to the farms.

Off we bounced down the dirt roads. The mule had been sent to pasture many years ago; the van made too much noise for him to sing as we went along, but not to talk, or rather shout. I was confronted with the big question which everyone was asking of me, "Where is Lilo?", since, to my dismay, they all fondly remembered us as an inseparable unit. I awkwardly explained that I had not seen her since a few months after leaving Montefrio, in other words, since almost as long as I had not seen them; when they asked why, I explained - to the males only, of course - that I was very young then and "still longed to meet many other women", which went down quite well... Maria Platillo Volante had also moved to Barcelona, where her five children - transformed by the industrial boom from useless lumpen into essential manpower - had found work in the factories and were able to look after her in her old age. She returned once a year, I was told, in a tiny SEAT 600 jelly-bean to see her relatives and buy olive oil and garbanzos to take back to her Catalonian tenement flat. Melchor the gypsy worked in a brewery in Barcelona operating the machine which put the labels on the cans, and was "fat and very well"; his brother José had moved to a nearby town, where he still sold horses. I would soon be embraced and interrogated by them all...

It was when Cristobal stopped to attend to some almond trees of his that I realized what I would do. He was grafting "sweet almond" shoots onto a tree which he said was "bitter", when I saw across the ravine a woman with a straw hat washing clothes under a fig tree, in front of a crooked white house. Down below by the creek a boy was calling up to his mother, in the perfect silence of the cactus and olive trees. I said to Cristobal, "I want to live in a house like that. Will you find me one?".

Two months later, at the beginning of September, I was back in my small grey Fiat van, loaded with everything I owned, including an electric typewriter and a gas-powered camping fridge newly purchased at La Samaritaine. Cristobal found a house for me called El Ventorro del Toril, which had been a mule-drivers' tavern on the road between Algarinejo and Montefrio. I have elsewhere described this house and, also, the one I lived in the following summer, not far away - I was in love then with a temperamental young woman called Pepa, whose destiny I believed for a while to be entwined with mine, to the point that I began to look for a cortijo to buy, because, having just been ignominiously expelled from teacher's school, she felt that she could make a go of a venture which was then the rage, a "farm school", where city children were indoctrinated to the joys of rural living for a weekend. But after Rocio's whimsical granja escuela had gone by the board, what remained was something totally new for me: the determination to have a house of my own.

It happened at the livestock fair of June, 1985. I was inspecting a rather puny but not unattractive mare, which a local man called Yo-Yo wanted urgently to sell me. I explained that I couldn't buy a horse because I didn't have a cortijo to keep it in. Yo-Yo, with an entrepreneurial gleam in his eye, asked what sort of house I was looking for. Small plot of land, good roof, beautiful views, low price... a moment later I was on the back of his motorbike, bumping down another carril. There it stood, like a chalk-white balcony overlooking the Sierra de Parapanda and the Vega de Granada, nestling among oak and almond and olive trees. My self-appointed real estate agent said it was owned by five brothers, all of whom but one had moved to Barcelona. The next day the house was mine - although I never did buy the mare.

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