Reyes

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Reyes

The Spanish Christmas comes on the Twelfth Day after our traditional Christmas: January 6, today. 32 years ago, we spent Reyes in Madrid. We arrived in time to see the Christmas Parade and what a sight that was, with the three Wise Men, los reyes magos, riding on their camels at the end of the parade. It had just snowed and the city, streets and squares, shone white.

It’s funny what we remember and how we remember it. “Mira, mira, mira!” “Look, look, look!” Then, in the distance, descending from the Puerta de Alacalá, the Three Wise Men. Behind us, a little boy screamed at his mother. “Don’t you want to see los tres reyes magos?” she asked him. “No,” he yelled. “I don’t believe in the three wise men. I want to go home and watch soccer on the telly!”

I wore a white sweater that evening. When I got back to the hotel, I discovered that every inch of sweater that had emerged from beneath my coat was now grey. Even the air was filthy and pollution lay in ambush everywhere. “Every time I cough, I get a mining souvenir,” Max Boyce used to sing. Well, after a couple of days in Madrid, I too was coughing up souvenirs, but they didn’t come from coal dust underground. They came from the very air I was breathing out in the city streets.

Later that week, we took the train out to the Casa del Campo to see those same three camels in the zoo. In the distance, the Guadarrama stood out clearly against the sky. The zoo welcomed us and we enjoyed breathing in the fresh air and seeing the animals in the wide open spaces behind the invisible bars that allowed us to view them in a more natural habitat.

Christmas / Reyes: a magic time for remembering things that seem to have vanished, yet that sneak up on you and shake you awake when you least expect it.

 

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Deer Dance

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Deer Dance

They came with the snow, of course. Last year there were seven, this year six of them sniffed their cautious way, step by step, into the yard. I looked out of the bedroom at 3:00 am, and there they were, standing beneath the mountain ash and reaching up to the lower branches to snaffle the berries. They also dug into the snow and ate the fruit that had fallen beneath the tree. The night was cold and dark. I didn’t want to risk the camera and have the flash or the laser beam frighten them so I just stood and watched.

Next morning, I wondered if it had all been a dream. Then I saw the dance-steps in the snow. They have been back a couple of times now and this morning Clare spotted seven, in the early morning light, ghosting their almost perfect camouflage through the trees. So now we have a couple of questions: are there two groups this year, one of six and one of seven? Or had the seventh deer from last year rejoined the group?

We think the group of six has larger deer while the group of seven has two seemingly smaller ones. But this may be a trick of moon light and shifting moon shadows. Climate change: the local deer at sixes and sevens. What would Ocho Venado, the Oaxacan / Mixtec King known as Eight Deer, think of it? Ah, a conundrum indeed. And when and if I work out any answers, I will let you know.

Old Pal

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Old Pal
It’s as easy as ‘Bob’s your uncle,’ as we say in Wales. Yet Bob is my uncle and life with him is never easy. On Saturdays I drive him to the local supermarket so he can purchase his groceries. He also buys cans of Old Pal dog food for Paddy, his ageing and eccentric Cocker Spaniel.
Bob always strips the labels off the cans he brings home. He trades them in for stamps so he can buy cigarettes and things. However, this stripping reduces the cans to bright, shiny aluminum canisters that sit together on the pantry shelf. He claims he knows in which order he stacks them, but I think he’s playing Russian Roulette, because he can’t tell the difference between soup, rice pudding, and dog food. They’re all locked in look-alike cans. Bob doesn’t care. His diet is a lottery anyway. He shoves the can’s contents into one end and as long as they come out the other, he’s happy.
“That’s what life is all about,” he tells me. “Munchies in and munchies out.”
            Bob’s quite happy with mushroom soup for lunch, or eating rice pudding. If he opens a mystery can and finds dog food in it, he just adds a spoonful of curry powder and heats it up on the stove. He stressed out about eating the meat in dog food when Mad Cow Disease hit Wales and consumers avoided beef, but his family doctor told him not to worry.
            “You’ll never get Mad Cow Disease from dog food,” the doctor told him.
“Why not?” Bob asked.
“Because dog food’s made from horse meat.  You can’t get Mad Cow Disease from a horse.
Bob loves dogs, but he hates Welsh Corgis. One day, he asked me to take him out for a drive. He put Paddy in the back seat, on an old blanket then patted him on the head before closing the car door.
I was already in the driving seat. I had taken the precaution of placing a plastic garbage bag over the passenger seat, in case Bob had an old man’s accident, but he told me not to worry.
“I’ll be all right. “I’ve got my Old Pal with me,” he pointed to the canvas bag at his feet. It rattled when he kicked it.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked Bob.
“Down the road,” he replied. “Let’s visit the Corgis.”
Down the road we went, driving happily, until Bob’s face came alive with joy.
“Turn right,” he cried. “There’s a Corgi down that street. Drive slowly now.”
I slowed down while Bob counted the houses.
“Stop,” he told me. “Now. Stop now.”
I stopped and Bob turned around and started slapping Paddy until the dog began to howl. Then Bob rolled down the window, pulled an empty can of Old Pal dog food from the canvas bag, unzipped his fly, stuck his old man’s magic screwdriver into it, and peed.
“The Corgi’s coming. He’s nearly here,” I could hear Bob’s chest wheezing.
“There he is,” Bob screeched with delight as a black-and-tan Corgi appeared at the gateway to the house. Bob whistled at the Corgi and, as the dog looked up, he threw the contents of the can … whoosh! … all over the dog. The Corgi jumped back, blinked, shook himself, and growled and snarled as the can drenched him in a sticky, smelly, golden shower.
“Take that, you dirty dog,” Bob cried. “Quick, drive away, now, before anyone sees us.”
I put the car into gear and accelerated away.
“This is so much fun. I’m so excited. I’m so excited I want to pee again,” Bob pulled a second empty can from the canvas bag. “Turn left. Third house up. Get ready, Paddy. There’s another Corgi on the way.”

Invisible Scars

 

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Invisible Scars

            Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of no te preocupes does not translate.
Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing.
The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them.
Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia the place where she chose to fight to the death. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, fallen to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again.
Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail.
Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not.
Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. Now I am no longer my self, but I’ll never be one of them.

 

Hair of the Dog

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Hair of the Dog

I awoke to the dog’s tongue licking my hand. When I moved, he jumped off the bed, ran to the door, turned and barked. The hall clock chimed six times, early for me to get up, but I did because I needed a pee. The dog followed me into the bathroom, whimpering. Street noises seemed louder than usual. The dog started barking again and a voice called out from the hall below.
“Anyone home?”
The dog clattered down the stairs woofing wildly. Still in my pajamas, I looked over the balustrade to see the milkman standing below.
“Hello,” he said. “The door was open and I just dropped in to see if everything was all right. Where’s your mother?”
“In bed, asleep,” I dug with my index finger at the sleepy crackling gathered in the corner of my eye.
“Not if I know her,” the milkman said. “She’s run off again and taken a bottle with her. You’d better get dressed.”
I scowled at the milkman, went back upstairs, and looked in my mother’s bedroom. Her red flannel nightie lay in a heap on the floor by the unmade bed, with its rumpled sheets and pillows all higgledy-piggledy. The bed felt cold beneath my fingertips and the clothes she had worn the day before had gone.
“I’ll get dressed,” I shouted. “I’ll just be a moment.”
“Sure,” the reply floated up the staircase.
“You’re right,” I said to the milkman as I met him at the bottom of the stairs. “She’s gone.” The first rays of sunshine touched the stained-glass windows above the door, and fragmented colors danced with dust motes, turning the milkman’s white uniform into a harlequin suit of lights.
“Not the first time she’s gone AWOL,” the milkman winked at me.  “She’s got quite the reputation round here. You’d better go out and find her. I bet she’s in the park with the others. That’s where she goes when the mood takes her. I see her sometimes when I’m in the milk float. I’d take the dog, if I were you. He’ll find her. He usually does.”
The dog whimpered as we got to the end of the drive. I checked my watch: 6:30 AM. The early sun slowly sliced through the morning’s damp creating rainbows in the mist. I shivered.  The milkman waggled his fingers in a silent good-bye and his electric milk float hummed then lurched out into the street with a clinking of bottles.

I stood at the roundabout at the corner and didn’t know which way to go.
“Find mum,” I said and patted the dog’s head. He wagged his tail, put his nose down, turned right, and set off down the main road towards the city center.
Shadows danced on the lower ironwork of the locked park gates. A child’s swing creaked gently in the breeze. The dog sniffed at the gates, lifted his leg on them, gave them a generous squirt, then put down his nose and tugged at the leash.
I followed the dog as he went past the gates and pulled me towards a hole in the hedge, just large enough to squeeze through. The dog whined with excitement and pawed at the gap. I followed pushing aside the bushes.
The dog whined again and tugged me towards a sort of mound that lay on the nearest park bench. Newspapers offered scant warmth to the body that they covered. A hand hung down and the dog licked it frantically. I touched that hand and the dog’s lick joined us in an unholy matrimony. Beside the sleeping figure on the bench, an inch or two of what appeared to be whisky huddled at the bottom of a forty-ounce bottle. Other empty bottles lay on the wet grass, like spent cartridges, some of them pointing at the woman’s head.
Shuffling feet had worn down the grass where the woman lay. I saw traces of blood on bandages and empty syringes. Some needles had been wiped on the pair of torn pink panties that peeped out of the grass.
The dog continued licking at the woman’s hand then stopped, pointed his nose at the sky and let out a single, piercing howl.
I shook my mother’s shoulder.
“Mum, Mum,” I called, but she didn’t move. She was locked in a land where I dared not follow her. I took out my cell phone and called the police.

They arrived with a park attendant who opened the gates and let their car in. They took one look at my mum and called for an ambulance. When it got there, the ambulance men examined my mum, said she was alive, put her on a stretcher, and carried her to the ambulance. I told them I wanted to accompany my mum to the hospital.
“Not with that dog, you don’t,” the driver replied. He got in, started the engine, turned on the siren, and pulled away.

I took the dog home, called for a taxi, and it took me to the hospital. When I got to the room in which they had caged her, she was unconscious. She never woke up.
I buried what was left of my mum ten days later, after the autopsy.

 

Bullfight

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Bullfight

The above photo shows novillos, young bulls, on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain, bred for the bull ring. They are tested in the farm’s private bull ring and the best and bravest are saved for the bull ring. A series of computer programs tests them at six month intervals to see if they are bull ring material.

Spain is divided on bull fighting with Catalonia banning the bullfight while Castilla and Andalusia are ardently in favor of the three, thousand year old tradition. The Spanish flag, in Castille, comes with a fighting bull, in the centre, replacing the coat of arms.

Many opinions exist abut bullfighting, bull running, and the whole tradition of blood sports. I will not state my position. But I will leave you with a piece of flash fiction, perhaps a short story. Each of you, if you wish, may play the game, click on the Bullfighting link, and decide for yourselves where you, and I, stand. Warning: not for the faint of heart … go on, be brave, remember the toros bravos who have perished in the ring.

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Los Toros de Guisando, mentioned in the Quixote, prehistoric stone bulls, verracos, Celtic carvings from the Province of Avila, Spain. The Roman legions carved their names into these stone bulls. Below, a modern bull, also from the province of Avila. I must, at this point, mention my friend Juanra, who took me to see these monuments and encouraged my interest in his wonderful province. Juanra, te lo agradezco, no sabes cuanto.

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