Up to the age of 40, it had always been my philosophy that, since the things of the past did not tend to have a very long "shelf life", it was best never to look back. But upon reaching mid-life, the feeling that I had already seen quite a bit and that the future was unlikely to hold anything radically new led me to start doing just that. In fact, I felt I had come full circle in terms of adventures, and longed for something I had never really had: a home.
I had come back to Europe, from the West Indies, in 1981, and spent the first two years in Paris. Then I unexpectedly received a modest but regular monthly sum of money which made it possible to live (and write) without working, but not in Paris. I asked my benefactor - who knew me well - where I should go and the answer was "Spain". So shortly thereafter I went to have a look.
When, that damp spring morning, I got on the bus at El Tocon station - fifth stop on the Granada-Seville railway 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 that "Lorenzo's heart is dead", and the naive peanut peddler went about announcing my biological death, until a letter from a doubting friend reached me in Paris asking for a confirmation. I recognized 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.
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 and asked nervously if Manuel Avila was still alive. His answer itself was a return to the spiritual region of Montefrio:"!Si lo esta", he answered enthusiastically, "y muy buena persona es!". In the villagers' peculiar way of thinking, to have just answered "Yes, he is alive" without adding something laudatory might have sounded as if he wouldn't regret it if he weren't...
Having read and heard so much about how Spain had changed, 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. 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, slanted 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 false teeth.
One thing struck me immediately: the large black wooden cross which had been affixed to the front of the 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 - making drastic use of their new democratic powers - 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 brought from Cordoba. Manolo no longer lived in the same house nearby, but the woman there 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. In a sombre store with an aluminium-framed display front, I found a plump, balding man who excitedly said he remembered me from when he was 10 or 11; he rushed upstairs and came down a moment later with his uncle.
Manolo glanced at me unsmilingly, startled, and sat down in silence. For a moment I wretchedly thought he was going to tell me to go to hell, but then he grunted "Pense que te habian matao - I thought they had killed you". I began to apologize for never having written, but he motioned me to stop, so that we could talk about the only two subjects which he plainly felt could possibly interest anyone: flamenco singing, and his ailments.
He looked very dignified in his retirement clothes, dark suit with prize-winning pin in the lapel (a gold guitar) and neatly trimmed grey-white hair. In spite of his almost boyish appearance he had, it seemed, a recently-installed pace-maker and a host of other afflictions which made it totally impossible for him to sing - in spite of which, before long, he was singing. (In fact, Manolo had become such a hypochondriac that when I told him so one day, he pounced 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 ashes.) Maria was in Barcelona with their sons, who worked in an office; I was told that I was lucky to find Manolo in the village, since he officially resided there, although in fact - as I was already seeing - he frequently found excuses to come back on his own and stay with his sister. For the tormented artist, Montefrio was the lesser of two evils: when I imprudently asked him if he was "happier" in Montefrio or Barcelona, he looked at me indignantly and snarled, "!No estoy bien en ninguna parte! - I'm not happy anywhere!". I knew what he meant, but it was clear that he felt out of place living in a commuter town for Andalucian guest workers.
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. I was sitting on my bed in the Fonda, where I had taken a room for the night (the same room 5 where Lilo had beaten her head on the 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 kept her in comfort; she returned once a year, it seemed, in a tiny Seat 600 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 Jose 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 tiny grey Fiat van, loaded with everything I owned, including an electric typewriter and a gas-powered camping fridge newly purchased at La Samaritaine. Cristobal rented a house for me called El Ventorro del Toril, which had been a mule-drivers' tavern on the road between Algarinejo and Montefrio. I will not describe this house, nor the one I lived in the following summer, in the Vilanos Valley; nor will I speak of the young woman in Granada 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 she (having just been ignominiously expelled from teacher's school) felt that she could make a go of a venture which was then the rage among young Spanish libertarians, a "farm school", where city children were indoctrinated to the joys of rural living. But after the soulful Rocio and her 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 an attractive 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 light 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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