Saturday, 10 July 2010

Goodbye Juan

It's my birthday.
Between breakfast and lunch I have two unexpected visitors. The first is elderly Manolo who reminds me I reversed into his son's new car a few days ago and scraped its shinny bumper. We'll all have a chat about it at the weekend he says. He's being very nice about it.
A few hours later a young man in a grey and orange uniform arrives and tells me I need a certificate for my gas installation. He says it's a new law, and can I read Spanish. Yes, I say, and I read some of the three pages he hands me. I am then easily conned into parting with 138€.
It's a scam my neighbors tell me later.
Why didn't I ask them before I paid up?
I wasn't expecting to deal with 'life' on my birthday, and, I've never heard of anybody being conned in our village.

It's evening now after a day with too much heat. Here in southern Spain, summer has sneaked in. We've been sitting for hours in the patio of our favourite restaurant, El Limonero. The owner is Wes, our friend the Canadian sculptor. He's created dishes for us that we've shared with the delight of eight years olds. I speak for myself. John's appetite after his chemo is small. When the deserts arrive, they're works of art, and as we dip into chocolate a rum cake, meringues with cream and blueberries, and a little mountain of cooked apples for John topped with a flower,fireworks explode outside.
Spain has beaten Germany.
Out little town goes wild with excitement.

I walk back to my car. The main street in Orgiva is alive with a group of young boys enjoying themselves recklessly, each one shouting and brandishing the Spanish flag . They run in a pack into the middle of the road as cars approach, shouting madly, VIVA ESPANA, VIVA ESPANA! The drivers respond by hooting their horns, their passengers yelling out of the windows, flags waving everywhere. It's a riot of delight, and it's a miracle nobody getting run over.
I stop and watch, momentarily overwhelmed with huge emotion. Real tears of allegiance to my adopted country take me by surprise. I love this country, and I love these people.

As I start to drive home, every car I pass blasts its horn at me. ' VIVA, VIVA ESPANA !' they all shout.
'Viva Espana', I shout back as loud as I can, and blast my horn for the next next ten minutes.
Imagine being 65 today,having meringues and blueberries, being with three dear best friends, and blasting your horn for ten minutes in the city center, well, the village center.

I'm very tired half an hour later when I park my car in our mountain village. It's a five minute walk to my house. The olive and mulberry trees always look beauitful at night lit up by the old fashioned street lights. There are many stars in the sky, Venus is especially bright. The frogs in Josepha's pond are in full throttle. All over Spain people will be celebrating, and blasting their car horns. I'm listening for the song of a nightingale, but instead I hear the sound of many subdued voices. As I approach my house I see a large group of neighbors huddled together in the lane under Juan's vine. Before my tired mind can work out what's happening, Fina runs down the slope and grabs me by the arm.

Juan's died she tells me. He died this morning. We came to tell you, but you weren't there.
'I'm so sorry,' I say. 'I'll just put my bag in the house and come up.'
This is the tradition in Spanish villages in the south. The villagers arrive to support the family. Some will stay all night. 80 year old Juan will be buried tomorrow at six.

I join them. I search the faces for Mari Carmen, Juan's daughter -in-law. She's looked after him with expertise and care for the last four years. She hugs me tightly and I tell her I think she's been a really wonderful daughter in law. I mean it and she knows I mean it.
She smiles. We're standing under the ancient vine. At last the air is cool.
She's in a state of shock. I know it hasn't been easy for her.

'Where's Joaquin ?' I ask looking around for her husband.
'Inside.'
Inside Juan's small house a room has been cleared of furniture and his tiny coffin sits on two supports. Behind the coffin is a tall silver cross with electric 'candle effect' lights.
Joaquin, aged forty, Juan's younger son, stands by the door facing his father's coffin. I kiss him on both checks and say
'Lo siento mucho,' which is what I've been taught is the right thing to say.
He looks extraordinarily beautiful in his grief. His serious weatherbeaten face is somehow softer, without defenses now, and he is wordless, guarding his father's small body. Three village women stand beside the coffin. I edge towards it. I have never seen a dead body. I want to say goodbye to my friend. Elderly Ariseli says 'Happy Birthday Margarita.' Carmen says 'I wish you many more', but I don't hear her, so she repeats it louder.
'I'm sorry', I say, 'I.....'. I'm lost for words when I see Juan's face. His face is grey. It is so dear. And he's smiling. I've never seen him smile like this. The white silk shroud comes up to his chin.

I join the women in the next room until 1.30 in the morning. We are all ages, from 14 to 80.
Somehow, maybe as a result of the intensity of the situation, the conversation veers off towards my encounter with the rip- off- agent this morning. Before I know it, all the women are grinning and laughing. It doesn't quite seem right that we should be laughing so loudly with Juan just next door in his coffin. But on reflection, had he known, I think this gentle quiet man might also have had a little laugh. May he rest in peace.

Adios Juan y Viva Espana.