By Lawrence Bohme
This is the fourth of the Stories from Montefrio, in which
Lawrence reminisces on his early visits, between 1960 and
1962, to the "granadino" village which is now his home.
When I call the summer of 1961 "flamenco", it isn't only
because it was filled with the wonderful music itself -in the
corner of a tavern, at the barber shop of Rafael (our only guitarist),
or in the Moorish tower which stood atop the ancient house in which
we lived - but, rather, because the spirit of flamenco seemed to be
present in everything and everyone. The word is sometimes used in
Spanish as an adjective meaning "gutsy, fiery, passionate", and it
is in this sense which I use it here.
In the morning Lilo would go down to buy milk from the
goatherd who drove his flock through the streets - you gave him
your saucepan and he milked a goat while you waited. But when we
had been up all night with our moonlit "juergas" in the atico, we
would rise late and then head for the back porch of the Cafe Espanol,
where there was a fig tree which always seemed to be loaded with ripe
fruit - "brevas" in July and "higos" in September. As we took our cafe
con leche, the gypsy bootblack we called Culebra ("snake", because he
looked like one) would climb up the tree and collect a bowl of
night-cool, purple-black figs for us to eat with our churros. In
the days before everyone had fridges, no Spaniard would have dreamt
of picking a fig at any time but breakfast...
Tapas time began several hours later, when the streets
became redolent of deep-fried squid and roasting chorizo; "los amigos"
could usually be found in the Fonda or any of the many taverns tucked
away in unlikely, and even unimaginable places, on the winding alleys
and staircases of the village. And if you couldn't find the person
you wanted, you just had to ask Maria Platillo Volante and she either
told you immediately, or made it her business to inform the interested
party where you were, so that one way or the other you were with him
in less time than it takes, in our times, to send and receive an
e-mail by the Internet.
Maria was the town peanut-vendor. In her black dress and
slippers she roamed the bars with a broad basket over her arm,
supplying the drinkers with "avellanas". She got her strange
nickname ("Mary the Flying Saucer", by which she is known until
today, even though the reason has been largely forgotten) because
she was constantly "orbiting" around the town, and that was when
UFO's and sputniks were all the rage. Maria's life had been "ruined"
by a scoundrel who left her with 5 illegitimate children to marry
someone else, and she lived with her scrawny, anaemic brood in a
tiny room on the Calle de Marquesas, sustaining them all on her
Lilo immediately made her our friend, for Maria was, like
Lilo, a lady with great spiritual qualities, as one could see from
her lovely, soulful dark eyes. We would sometimes give her a few
hours of work making our lunch, and I can see her in my mind's eye
now, smiling sadly as she stirs her delicious "revuelto" of
eggplants and potatoes, in the long-handled iron pan sizzling
on the coals.
Sometimes I would get up early and walk out of the village
with Cristobal, to deliver the bread to the cortijos. He wore a
grey cotton waistcoat and cap and broad canvas trousers, and led a
mule laden with hemp-woven cerrones, or saddle bags, full of half
kilo loaves of bread. On the way he would sing the chants we all
loved, the "cana", which was the wagoneer's song, and the "serrana",
the "mountain girl's" song. When "breakfast" time came (they only
drank coffee or anisette upon rising, and had their real breakfast
in mid-morning) we would stop in the shade of an almond tree to
share his "canto de pan y aceite". He would take out his curved
jack-knife and cut a big piece from the side of a round loaf.
Then he carved a wedge of dough from the interior and filled the
hole with thick, green olive oil from a small bottle he carried in
his pouch. He replaced the wedge, and when it was all properly
absorbed, broke it in two. This was eaten with a cucumber which
we peeled and held in one hand like a banana, and washed down with
water from his clay "pipote", a jug with a thin spout like a tea-pot,
which he filled at a nearby fountain.
Although we seemed very strange to them - "una alemana"
with a crew-cut and "un ingles" with hair which for the period was
very long - it never occurred to anyone to ask if, for example,
we were married. We came from a different world, where their rules
did not apply; all they knew was that we were in their village -
the first foreigners they had ever seen - and that we liked it
and came back often. We were welcome in every home, from the
poorest hovel to Curro's manor, the Torre del Sol, west of town.
That was where I got the sunburn, sitting by his swimming
pool (the only one in Montefrio, which he never bathed in himself
but had built for the tourist girls he picked up in Torremolinos).
I was absorbed in the reading of Don Quijote, and had covered my
back with a shirt but forgotten about my legs, which were hanging
in the water. I spent the next 2 weeks howling with pain, my skin
bright red from the knees up. This caused some wonderment in the
town, since it was the first case of sunburn they had ever
witnessed - only the "cortijeros" exposed themselves to the sun,
and they were like well-tanned leather. The pain became so
unbearable that Lilo had to call in the local practicante, Don
Juan, who back then wore a black, Franco-style moustache, to inject
me with a sleeping potion.
But the one I wanted to be with all the time was Manolo,
Manolo the artist - perhaps the only artist I ever met. Like all
real poets, he was incapable of uttering a word which was not
poetry, even though he never wrote a line. We wandered, we talked,
and he sang. I heard him sing among his olive trees and in the
ruins of the great 16th century church on the cliff, before the
hole in the roof - caused by the celebrated lightning bolt of
1767 - was repaired; I heard him sing among the stalactites of
the prehistoric caves east of the village; and I heard him sing
on the Calvary Hill overlooking the village, where I took an
eerie photograph of him with his arms raised and the great vein
standing out on his forehead, which I had forgotten existed until
it re-appeared 10 years ago in a trunk in a friend's cellar in
In September there was a livestock fair which brought
thousands of farmers, each with his waistcoat and boots and "callao"
(walking stick), to buy and sell horses, mules and donkeys. The
two gypsy brothers, Melchor and Jose, who were horse dealers by
trade, invited me to get up on a mare they had, which promptly
began to run across the field, with me hanging on to the mane,
until someone got hold of its dangling bridle; it was my first
ride bareback. Their father was an imposing fellow with great
moustaches called Guillermo, whom I always thought of as the
King of the Gypsies. His authority was such that once, while
conversing in the plaza, Melchor - who then was about 25 and
had several children - said something which apparently displeased
him, because he unceremoniously slapped his face. Melchor hung
his head in shame, to my amazement.
But that did not mean that they were not proud - after
Melchor admired a bright yellow knitted tie I had from New York,
and which I was rather tired of (we were all very dapper then),
I said that I would give it to him. The next time we met, in
the plaza among a group of other gypsies, I took it out of my
jacket pocket and offered it to him, but he frowned and hurriedly
motioned me to put it back. "Later", he whispered, "when we're
As for my life with Lilo, it was too soon for the troubles
to begin - as the French say, "the first three months, c'est
toujours merveilleux". But there was an advance signal, in the
form of the flower pot. My dear American friend Anthony came
from New York to spend a few weeks with us, and late one night,
after he and I had been talking in the kitchen, leaving Lilo
upstairs, we decided to go out for a walk. But as soon as we
closed the door behind us and stepped into the silent, moonlit
street, there was a great explosion and debris flying everywhere.
We looked up at the balcony of the bedroom which Lilo and I used.
She was no longer there, nor was the large flowerpot of geraniums,
which was now scattered over the cobblestones. The problem was
that Lilo had always had me to herself, and I had adjusted my
outpourings to her serious, German way of reasoning. When she
heard me chattering away freely in my native Anglo-Saxon vein,
ironic and irreverent, she didn't like it. She called it
"decadent and devilish".
But Anthony went away, and for a short while more, all
was harmony and understanding. Such are the perils of being a
cultural chameleon! Before we left for decadent, devilish Paris,
at the end of the summer, we did something which was right up her
Wagnerian alley (and Lilo's surname was in fact Wagner): we spent
three nights sleeping in a tomb.
Several miles east of Montefrio lies the vast archaeological
site known as "Las Penas de los Gitanos" - The Cliffs of the Gypsies.
We decided to get closer to the mysteries of this lovely spot by
sleeping in one of the Copper Age "dolmens", or megalithic tombs,
which litter the bottom of the great canyon. Thus one fine day in
August we set out from Montefrio, with the hired help of El Gordo
and his donkey, laden with our groceries and Manolo's sheepskins to
sleep on. When the villagers learned where we were going they
murmured in awe, "!Van a dormir con los muertos!".
We were comfortable enough, just fitting into the floor of
the tomb, with our branches and leaves and sheepskins; and Cristobal
came out with his mule to bring us fresh bread every day. We saw no
Copper Age spirits, but we did get a haunting glimpse of the shape
of things to come. The first space satellites had just been
launched by the USSR and the USA, and it was lying out one night
under the Andalusian sky on our sheepskins, spread on the great
rough slab of the tomb's cover, that we saw one for the first time,
only distinguishable from the stars because it was moving, on an
even course, towards the future.
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