The Spider on the Differential

Pat Neil

So we beat our boats against the current,
Borne back ceaselessly into the past.
(F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This story feels like a mere series of anecdotes, barely connected. The connection I hope is really like those old Victorian playthings, where you flip the pages over quickly and a sort of moving picture appears, although each one on its own is static.
Once you start this remembering business it takes hold of you by the scruff of the neck, the years slip away. And it has come to pass that indeed I can recall incidents from 50 years ago very clearly, smell the Mediterranean herbs crushed under the donkey’s hooves, feel the grittiness of the sand as it formed a crust with the scented Ambre Solaire…. Keep your madeleines Monsieur Proust, it’s the nose that does it for me.

It was the 60s, but not as Britain knew it…. London was swinging – Carnaby Street, music festivals, beads, dope, flower power and floaty skirts, the Beatles. It all, all passed us by. We were living in an alternative world.

In the early years of the decade my friend Suze and I were working on the Costa Blanca in the summers and taking ourselves and our earnings to Madrid in the autumn. It was a vain attempt to try and make a living until earnings began again the following April. As a resident rep for various travel agencies, most now defunct, I earned £5 a week, with accommodation and food provided by the hotels we used. That was in theory. In practice you could only depend on finding your clients in the hotel at meals; by the time they’d finished complaining about the giblets in the chicken soup or pleading for you to rescue their dentures from a flushed lavatory pan, lunch or dinner was over, and we went hungry. So it was down to Casa Pedro, our neighbourhood bar and gathering place for reps, for Pedro’s mama to cook us fried eggs and chips with home-made tomato sauce. Manna. She used to make her own soap too; we found her one afternoon on her knees in the scullery, overseeing a flotilla of baking tins filled with a brown sludgy substance and marking the break lines as you do with a tray of tablet. It smelt foul.

At mealtimes we also booked our clients in for excursions, from which we got a minuscule commission, but miniscule went a long way. I mentioned the donkey’s hooves earlier – a favourite outing was a quiet amble through the lemon groves in the countryside behind Benidorm, everyone on a donkey led by its owner (you can see the leading rope in the picture if you look hard but I don’t mention this to everyone). [donkey photo] The fragrances were heady, and we finished at tables in dappled sunlight under trellises of vine leaves, musica de guitarra and jugs of sangría having the inevitable outcome of enthusiastic but pretty unskilled flamenco dancing. Suze was a bad person, she used to lob lemons at the rear of donkeys carrying people we didn’t like much, ay madre, so much heehawing and nervous squawking.

In the whole of Benidorm in the early 60s there were only half a dozen phones available for public use, all located in the tiny post office. You’d often find one of us huddled in a corner yelling down the speaker to head office in London trying to explain some frightful incident, after spending hours hanging about waiting to be put through – calls had to be booked. Oh it was not a helpful system if someone had died and decisions had to be made fast about what to do with the body. My only brush with such a disaster came one year when I was working in the north of Mallorca and a very likeable gentleman suddenly took ill, a suspected heart incident, right in the middle of one of the frequent power cuts. We put him to bed and brought candles for the doctor to examine him, me as interpreter (new vocab was needed here). The poor guy was getting more and more agitated but was unable to speak. I can’t remember what the medico did for him but in the morning he was recovered and able to confess that he had been desperate to tell us he wasn’t dead – the flickering candles at head and foot had seemed to him very much like a lying in state….

My first summer in Benidorm we had no official work but eyed the resident reps enviously for their comfortable (we thought…) lifestyle. I got a job (aged 20) as front-of-house interpreter and greeter for an open-air establishment, a Sala de Fiestas, with a resto at the front and a cinema and dance club at the rear. A fling with the Basque pianist/singer (his name was Chechu Urrengoechea if you want to know) made that season memorable. The lecherous old owner of the Sala had a massive estate of orange groves up in the hills and tried to make me come and manage it (good grief) on the flimsy basis that my father had a 100 acre farm in Lincolnshire so therefore I must know everything about land management. He also tried other things on me and got seen off when I finally realised what he was up to – a girls’ boarding school on the chilly coast of East Anglia leaves you with a cutting way with words if not much street sense.

So who were our amigos in the Benidorm village? There was Pedro of course, and Elly who worked behind the bar there, and there was Vicente (pronounced Bithenti)  who hired out the beach chairs but who let us have them for free (we brought the turistas remember), and there was Tio (uncle) Vicente who drove a taxi and who was, exotically, a Pied Noir. These were French (or sometimes Spanish) colonists who fled to Spain during the wars over Algerian independence in 1962. Tio Vicente was a big burly man, with a Che Guevara moustache, and he watched over us with great gentleness. Andres the bus-driver was a stalwart part of our everyday lives, trailing us to and from the airport and never losing his cool at the frequent lengthy delays. One day he took us to meet his familia in a village outside Benidorm, and we were invited to stay for a meal. Ushered into the kitchen to greet his wife we found an earth floor, well tamped down, and a single gas-ring propped on some bricks in the middle of the room with wifie on her hunkers in front of it. In the all-purpose paella pan she was stirring rabbit joints in a dense tomato sauce, oh how good that was, and out of such simple surroundings and in such jolly company.

You see how our friends and constant compañeros were all people from the pueblo of Benidorm, long time inhabitants, solid good people who were living their lives in circumstances that would have seemed mediaeval to our own families back in prosperous Britain. For both of us it was the start of a shift away from our privileged middle class backgrounds and towards the recognition of Everyman I suppose, not slotting people into pigeon-holes of class and accent, which school we went to or the way we held our cutlery.

So, the summers passed looking after some of Spain’s early turistas, many of whom had never been abroad before and many of whom also fell foul of the slapdash room reservation systems. The ‘transfers’ (taking one busload to the plane home and picking up another) always took place in the early hours of the morning, the airport being  in Valencia, 90k away from Benidorm. [photo of blazered guide with room list]. An even longer journey, believe me, when you knew you’d have to explain to exhausted travellers on their arrival in the grim dawn hours that they’d been double booked, their rooms with a view swapped for some in an annexe looking out over the bins. Common occurrence. Nae fun.

Anyway, sick to death of looking after people we drove up to Madrid for the winter, to look after ourselves. Jobs were scarce, non-existent in fact, but we scraped by. Basically you only found work if you had an enchufe, a plug, meaning connections. As extranjeras, foreigners, of course we had none. An English couple for whom we did administrative work, in the property field, did a midnight flit owing us a couple of months’ wages – a real disaster for us but probably for them too. Some translation work was a godsend but the subject was challenging. A very desirable young man asked me to help him with a spare parts catalogue for a car of some sort. Hmmmm…. I never did understand what the spider on the differential meant in English, let alone in Spanish, but we made some sort of a fist of it. And I got paid.

Round about this time we were living on Marie, sorry, Maria biscuits and condensed milk which we bought in large green glass containers and then took back to the dairy to get refilled. Not a healthy diet but it kept body and soul together while I waited for the phone to ring from Fernando with some translation. Then we hit on a grand ruse. We had noticed the occasional  rather rundown-looking person going about with bundles of newspapers; we asked ‘Que pasa aqui?’, ‘What’s going on here?’, to be told that they had collected them and were selling them for enough pesetas for a meal. Hooray! An honest living! So off we went, up and down the landings of apartment buildings on our block, explaining what we were up to, and did the Señora have any unwanted newspapers please? In the main they were immensely suspicious and we got nothing. Very few young Spanish women went out to work in those days and they probably thought we were no better than we should be. One day Suze went to the door to the right of a landing and I went to the one on the left, from behind which came a deeply unpleasant growling. Just my luck. The door opened on a chain and I began my usual query, getting the usual rejection. In the meantime an enormous German Shepherd (as they called Alsatians) was slavering its muzzle through the narrow gap while I leapt back trying to get my spiel out at the same time. ‘No se preocupe Señorita, no muerde, no muerde!’. ‘Don’t worry miss, he doesn’t bite, really.’ I was still leery, and rightly so as it turned out, as she opened the door a bit wider to talk to me and the hound of the Baskervilles shot out and fastened his teeth on my leg. ‘No muerde Señorita ,no muerde!’ shrieked the woman, while I dumbly pointed down at the fangs embedded in my calf.

Well, I was extracted in due course, Suze doubled up with laughter at the far end of the landing. Aha, until she realised I’d been wearing her second best pair of tights, having none of my own, and they were now hopelessly holed….

Any of you who have been in Spain know the Guardia Civil with their strange shiny black hats, the flat bit at the back supposedly so that they can lean comfortably against a wall when waiting for something to happen. In general the idea was to keep well out of their way but one time on an Easter trip down the coast in Suze’s Renault Dauphine we found one who took us on in a very fatherly way, our own personal Guardia to see no harm came to the extranjeras. We were in Almeria, night coming on and nowhere to sleep so we headed for the port area. All the fishing boats were pulled up, not a soul in sight, quiet as the grave. So we curled up and nodded off. At dawn we were woken by a sharp rapping on the window, with the fierce face of a Guardia peering in. What in tarnation (loose translation) were the Señoritas doing? We explained that we had nowhere to sleep, had been travelling in his very fine region, hoped we weren’t transgressing any bye-laws, and so forth. ‘Never you fear ladies’ he says, ‘I’ll guard you till morning, just you go back to sleep now.’ So he did, and we did, and we parted grand friends. Wasn’t that nice?

So many stories, all tumbling around in my head and somehow more real than the minutiae of daily life today. Memory is a strange thing. We were fortunate indeed that the world then was a more innocent place, we could racket about with no fear and grab a living as and when opportunities arose. We worked long hours with the turistas, never even saw the beach for 3 months in top season and coped with situations that I would blench at sorting out now. And at 21, 22 we had no expectations, no aspirations beyond earning our rent and the next meal. Possessions were minimal. As resident reps we owned a couple of dresses each and a pair of flipflops. When the little rubber button on the sole wore out we threaded a nappy pin through the stump (we had whole families in our circle of friends, there was always a baby involved) [perhaps photos of the paella fiesta in the old bullring?] and flopped happily on. The companionship was mutually sustaining, both the uproarious and the desperate situations brought daily to our bar HQ for sharing. These were my university years, missing the intellectual rigour but growing up experience-rich, or so it seems to me now. We all spoke 2 or 3 languages; Europe was our workplace and our playground. Salad days indeed.

Pat Neil lived in Spain for 6 years during the 1960′s. She still speaks fluent Spanish, even if all her slang is still that of the sixties streets. After Spain, Pat lived and travelled in South East Asia before returning to Britain and writing ‘Tiger, Tiffin and Mee’ one of the earliest,  finest, most authentic oriental cookbooks to be published on these shores.

One Response to “The Spider on the Differential”
  1. anna dickie says:

    !Enhorabuena! !Felicitaciones!
    Que memorias tan divertidas,como siempre muy bien hecho.

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