We met The Señora, as my family still call her, and her pitiful child Esperanza in nineteen seventy-three, during our first summer in Spain. A short barrel of a woman all in black, she was eating sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks, and pushing a rattling baby stroller along the dusty street. By this time, I’d had several weeks of Spanish baby-talk practice, so we began a friendly, if limited, conversation. I thought she looked too bowed and wrinkled to be the baby’s mother, must be the grandmother. Fortunately, I couldn’t remember the word for granddaughter, which saved me dropping a clanger.
I tried to show as much enthusiasm for her infant as she did for my chubby, blue-eyed baby with strawberry blonde curls, pink cheeks and a permanent smile; but, even in English, it would have been difficult to sound convincing. Esperanza was a skinny, sallow, sunken eyed little waif. She showed none of my Susie’s passion for life, didn’t even blink at my beaming, ‘Hola, Guapa!’ (Hi, beautiful! The expected greeting.)
When I finally understood The Señora’s pronunciation of the word for birthday, we established that little Esperanza had been born the day before Susie. Her current weight was less than half. (In those days, a child’s weight and age were always the first two questions. Weight was everything.)
‘Mira,’ (Look) said The Señora, broken-voiced. ‘Mira la diferencia.’
Her grief was tangible and heart-breaking. I felt even guiltier when she admired Susie’s gorgeous dress and new leather sandals, forcing me into a feeble attempt at reciprocating, which she acknowledged with a smile and shrug.
After some elaborate mime, I gathered she and her husband had four more children, tres, cuatro, seis, siete. A weathered hand indicated stepped heights. And she wanted my children’s cast-offs.
Naturally, I was happy to help. The Señora’s family needed them more than the charity shops at home. As a bonus, I could fill the freed-up luggage space with strings of garlic, vacuum packs of jamon iberico from Loli’s supermarket, and those charmingly ethnic reed dishes woven by the river gypsies. But we’d need the clothes until we left. I mimed undressing my children, placing an armful of clothes into The Señora’s hands, and a plane taking off into the blue, a performance which set passers-by grinning, while my cringing five-year-old son Malcolm begged me to stop. Finally, I wrote our departure date on a scrap of paper.
I should have guessed she couldn’t read. I remembered now, the local taxi driver, ex-lorry driver, had said he never went to school, nor did most of the villagers; and I remembered seeing pensioners crowding the village branch of Banco Atlantico on Thursdays, thumb-printing their pension book stubs. Eventually, Loli came out from her supermarket to help. I suggested her shop as a drop-off point. But The Señora, now speaking through the more articulate Loli, insisted on knowing my apartment number and block. I wasn’t keen to divulge my address: there was something gypsyish about The Señora, something perhaps dangerous. But I was outnumbered and out-Spanished. She would call for the clothes, they informed me – without asking if it was convenient – on the afternoon before my departure.
So, on our penultimate morning, I filled a gigante-size bin bag, keeping only the kids’ travelling gear and the swimsuits they were wearing. The Señora came alone. Her thanks were brief, a single, ‘mucha gracia,’ which disgusted Malcolm, who suddenly adored all his clothes.
After she’d gone, I explained that Muchas gracias means more than simply thank you. ‘We don’t have an exact word for Gracias,’ I said. ‘It’s like a blessing. Good things. So Muchas gracias wishes good things for the giver.’
The next day, as we waited for the taxi to the airport, she came again, with a paper cone of caramelos for the children. ‘Toma, toma!’ she urged – take them –and cackled at their timidity.
‘At least, try them,’ I hissed. ‘Her children would have loved them.’
Stony stares. In spite of her disguise, Malcolm recognised her – so he later informed me – from the picture in his little Ladybird Sleeping Beauty book. He wasn’t having anything from the Poison Apple Witch.
The following summer, my Susie was nearly two, more robust than ever and walking sturdily. I was horrified to see little Esperanza still in the stroller, still tiny and sunken eyed, and in a plaster cast from waist to knee. It forced her legs excruciatingly wide open, revealing a disposable nappy. Susie had been out of nappies for ages. The poor child’s lower legs poked out sideways from the plaster like little sticks. Apparently, this barbaric torture was correcting a hip deformity, and would last eight months. I learned there was a new baby at home, being cared for by the other children.
Eventually, after The Señora had performed an incomprehensible mime and hummed a strange tune with knuckles to lips, I gathered her husband was the local knife grinder. We’d been enchanted by his haunting Pan Pipes refrain, and had watched him work in the street with sparks flying from the rear wheel of his little put-put motorbike. Malcolm was fascinated by his right shoe with its built-up sole.
What future could there be, I wondered, for the children of a lame knife grinder?
It became an annual ritual: I told Loli our departure date, The Señora collected our clothing the day before we left. She continued to be restrained in her thanks; but always turned up the next day as we were leaving with a gift: three giant cauliflowers, or four kilos of tomatoes, or a bag of potatoes, or a Lanjarón bottle of urine- coloured wine.
Over the next few years, watching little Esperanza’s progress, I wished her mamá would stop comparing our daughters’ annual weight gains. It was embarrassing, for me and the girls. But The Señora was obsessed.
At home in England, The Señora was a constant presence in my life, a sort of second conscience. While throwing washing into the machine, I pictured her struggling over the fields and across the highway to the village wash house, an open sided structure on the beach where local women pounded laundry on ridged concrete slabs. I started saving stuff, raiding the house for spare sheets, blankets and towels and filling a suitcase for The Señora. I even took my kids’ outgrown books. The text would be meaningless, but the pictures were pretty.
In year six, we visited The Señora’s home. She’d invited us before, pointing out her little house from our balcony. It was inland from our apartment complex, a tiny whitewashed cottage standing alone among former cane fields where tomatoes now grew. It was so small I had assumed it was a toolshed or a shelter for the workers’ siesta. Always, my two had flatly refused to go, but now I insisted. They were nearly seven and twelve. They ought to see how the other half lives.
So we crossed the coastal highway, dragging two big sacks. The kids were sullen, blinking and squinting in the sunshine, complaining about the heat, kicking up a dust along the edge of the tomato field, and begging me not to stay long.
A song of heart-wrenching purity poured from a tiny bird cage suspended from a clothes-line in full sun. A boy, the fourteen-year-old, I guessed, was flinging whitewash at the house wall with a kind of short handled toilet brush. The cal goes on blue-grey and dries to a blinding white. He dropped his brush, wiped his hands on dry grasses, and approached us.
Six smaller children, the youngest around eighteen months, materialised from the tomato field, wide-eyed, wearing an assortment of our castoffs. Esperanza, like Susie, was nearly seven. She walked well enough, but was still pale and peaky, yet strangely appealing, like that round-eyed Les Misérables waif. The boy smiled, introduced himself as Jose Antonio and said a formal ‘Buena tarde.’ He told his brothers and sisters to say Hola, which they did, with shy smiles. My two leaned into me like bookends, whispering, ‘Let’s go, Mummy, please.’
Jose Antonio said Mamá was in the field, cutting cane. His sister was fetching her. When he invited us – and I agreed – to wait indoors, my kids were panic stricken, torn between staying in the searing heat without me, or entering the witch’s hovel.
A little earth-topped bridge led over a ditch to the door. The ditch was about two metres deep, and contained assorted garbage, with a trickle of water running through and purple-blue morning-glory flowers scrambling over its banks. Most of the rubbish was non-food: a car tyre, a child’s tricycle frame, a battered lampshade. But a broken orange crate straddled the water, and rotting oranges littered the area downstream. I shivered in spite of the sun scorching my shoulders, imagining rats.
Led by José Antonio and followed by the whole tribe in descending order of size, we single filed across the bridge. It had no handrail, nothing to stop the toddler from falling off. I almost did fall, thanks to my two jostling me. The door led directly into the salón.
Inside was dark and cool. As my eyes adjusted, I saw why José Antonio was keen to show off his home. The floor, red painted concrete, was so shiny, if there had been more light, we could have seen our reflections in it. Until the baby helped himself to a Magdalena from the tiny cooking area and dropped cake crumbs, there wasn’t a speck of dirt. The little room was a sort of shrine to Catholic family life. On the wall, a silver crucifix and a picture of Christ with open chest and bleeding heart. On the sideboard, a chenille runner patterned with lilies and crown of thorns, and silver framed photos of the parents’ wedding and the oldest children’s First Communions: a girl in a bridal dress and pearl ear studs, and José Antonio in white sailor suit, each holding a Bible. José Antonio urged us to look in the bedroom, which was just big enough for the matrimonial bed and a baby’s cot. A brass bedstead glinted in the half-light. The counter pain, a froth of immaculate white lace, looked too virginal to have conceived all these dark-eyed children. Where did they all sleep? Or play in wet weather? Where were the toys? My kids’ stuff would fill this place twice over. Where was the bathroom? I didn’t ask, for I could see from the children’s faces this was their palace, and they expected us to be impressed.
We followed them outside to meet their mother. She carried a length of cane like a walking stick, and a dangerous looking knife. After greeting us with her gap-toothed smile, she slashed off short pieces of cane, which her children sucked enthusiastically.
‘Toma. E’ bueno!’
I was surprised by the sap’s taste, surprisingly astringent considering it’s the raw material for sugar. My kids, of course, refused to try theirs, holding them out like sticks of dynamite.
Just before our departure the next day, The Señora arrived on our doorstep, smiling broadly, and presented me with a shoebox full of perfect, glossy strawberries. (Our taxi was due any minute, so, as usual, I ended up giving them to a neighbour.)
Three years later, after the authorities had sold her house and surrounding land for a commercial development, she invited us to her new home. Her six bedroom, four bathroom two-knocked-into-one apartment was on the third floor of a brand-new complex. It was full of new furniture, courtesy of the Andalusian government – including three (!) lounge suites and a colour TV (still a luxury in Spain) bigger than ours at home. Everything was, of course, spotless.
Ten-year-old Esperanza, with her brown skin and flashing gypsy eyes, looked good in Susie’s lilac Liberty print dress from last summer. She glanced at Malcolm, now fifteen, and lowered her dark lashes, blushing prettily. ‘Welcome in our house.’
José Antonio cleared his throat. ‘Esperanza is top of her English class. In September, I go to Málaga, study for architect. We enjoy very much your little books. Now the others learn English. Thank you very much.’
The Señora beamed. ‘Mucha gracia.’