Gabriel was born in 1952 in the (fictional) mountain village of Aguazán, but grew up in another (fictional) village on the Mediterranean shore called Benalaya.
The Spain in which Gabriel grew up was ruled by the fascist dictator Francisco Franco and the Catholic Church. The country was still reeling from the atrocities of the Civil War and the Years of Hunger that followed. The Guardia Civil were everywhere, suspicious, well-informed and universally feared.
There was censorship of press, books, films, radio and television. (Sometimes with laughable results: lovers living under the same roof in a dubbed Hollywood film became uncle and niece, their kisses and other ‘improper’ gestures excised, and the audience left to guess at the real story.) Franco did little to develop Andalucía, supposedly because he bore a grudge against its people for opposing him in the Civil War, so for years, the area remained desperately poor.
Following Gabriel’s birth (and the death immediately afterwards of his mother’s husband), he and his mother and brother were thrown out of the family home. So the only home he ever knew was the cottage in Benalaya. Aguazán’s priest persuaded the local landowner to allow Gabriel’s mother to occupy it rent-free in exchange for tending the adjacent vegetable field. The cottage had two small rooms, a water tap, no electricity and no sanitation. In summer, the concrete floor was cool; in winter, damp.
The walls were of large stones in-filled with mud and covered with a waterproof, light-reflecting layer of cal, or lime, which had to be renewed every year. It was situated just outside the fishing village of Benalaya, in the middle of two fields beside a deep drainage ditch, which separated the vegetable field from the adjacent cane field. (Sugarcane, introduced by the Arabs a thousand years earlier, was an important crop in that area until the ‘sixties.) A narrow dirt path beside the ditch led to the main road.
(I based the cottage on the home of a family of nine (!) whose mother I came to know. When the field was built on in the ‘eighties, they were luxuriously rehoused – a greater contrast would be hard to imagine. The story about my family’s involvement with them will appear on this site in due course.)
The fictional village of Benalaya is based on several actual villages situated on the Mediterranean coast east of Málaga in the area known as the Axarquía. These villages straddle the N340 coastal highway between sea and hills.
During Gabriel’s childhood, the highway was the only paved road. After rain, the village streets became quagmires. The mud dried as hard as concrete – deep ruts and potholes made when it was wet preserved all through the long hot summer. Cars were few, but small motorcycles were plentiful. Most of these had no silencer and could be heard from miles away, especially at night.
The beach was stony and not regarded as a place for recreation until the advent of tourists, who did not reach this area until the ‘seventies. Even after the advent of tourists, many of the fishing houses next to the beach lacked sanitation, so the shingle was the place where housewives emptied their toilet buckets. And the goatherd still led his flock along the beach morning and afternoon – whistling ineffectually when they surrounded foreign holidaymakers and nibbled our towels!
Fishing was the main occupation
Small boats fitted with lights drifted on the sea all night (a pretty sight), returning at dawn with their catch. They were hauled onto the beach with the aid of stout wooden winches which had to be turned manually by several men pushing a wooden cross-bar. The catch was sold from the beach and nets were spread out for drying and repairing. Boats were also built and repaired on the beach.
Also on the beach, and still in use during the ‘seventies, were the public wash house (open-sided with stone troughs and cold water) and the small wooden schoolhouse (for which the beach was both playground and toilet). In winter, the Mediterranean is often stormy, so the women’s washdays and school playtime and toilet breaks could be bleak.
Gabriel’s mother could have kept him home to help in the field, but she was determined he become educated. In those days, many villagers, like María, were illiterate. (During the seventies, most of the old folk queueing in our local bank, Banco Atlantico, on Thursdays to collect their pensions used to sign with a thumbprint.)
Schooling in rural Andalusia was basic, boys and girls segregated, some schools taking boys in the mornings, girls in the afternoons, and girls being taught little more than sewing and religion. Religious education was paramount, with the emphasis on sin, guilt and sacrifice.
Few people could afford a television set while Gabriel was growing up – they were prohibitively expensive. Principal entertainments were the bars – for men only; the games room, which was simply a tiled room filled with pinball machines and table football, also frequented mainly by men and boys; and the cinema. Even during the seventies, the cinema on which I’ve based Benalaya’s was dirt floored and open to the sky with folding chairs and a simple whitewashed wall for the screen.
Gabriel’s family lived mainly on vegetables from the field his mother María tended – and stale bread, courtesy of their friend Don Gerónimo. Occasionally, there’d be small birds caught in nets she arranged over bushes, and roadkill picked up by María’s cousin, an itinerant knife sharpener.
When eleven-year-old Gabriel started cleaning out Don Gerónimo’s goat corral, he was paid in leftovers from the restaurant – and, later still, he learned to catch rabbits, a welcome source of meat. The only money his widowed mother earned was from selling her secretly-grown strawberries and items she wove from esparto grass (see separate article; she also wove her boys’ sombreros, belts or braces and shoes.)
Visitors were few, because María was something of a pariah – exiled from the inland village of Aguazán after the suspicious death of her husband, and accused of the crimes of murder and adultery. Gabriel’s deformity made him an outcast and the butt of bullies. His only childhood friends were his older brother; a younger, severely handicapped boy, with whom Gabriel had a special rapport; and, for a magical time during their teens, Inma.
Nowadays, in the twenty-first century, Spain’s health service is second to none. But, during Gabriel’s childhood, public health and dental care was, by comparison with Britain’s National Health Service, severely lacking. Many old people had few, or no, teeth. One-legged Civil War veterans were everywhere, especially in cities like Málaga, hobbling on taped-up wooden crutches with no hope of free prosthetics or wheelchairs. (And those who’d fought on the ‘wrong’ side, against Franco, got no disability pension.) Fortunately for Gabriel, his mother was the daughter of a curandero, or folk healer, and knew how to make herbal remedies.