Looking back to our reckless adventure in July 1985 it took much time to get our beloved Cristimar furnished. It was hard for Lizzie, aware that Berenca next door was forging ahead with wall fittings table lamps and a bright carpet in her salon whereas the Manns were still managing with basic floor covering. With three bedrooms, one used as an office, and a bed-settee in the lounge - or salon as Berenca called it - we were loosely kitted-up for visitors, and we were occasionally mobbed by family and friends although eventually their sense of adventure took them further afield than mundane Tenerife. It surprised us to know that Cristimar was the first fully independent home for the BBs' "For us," said Berenca, "we come to send for this apartment for not being join-ed but separa-ted before this, and we can do this already, no persons coming to say no to us for Cristimar is first time for us already."
Struggling to understand what she was struggling to explain, we managed to string barely meaningful understanding to her words. They married late; the bank manager and his new wife could not afford to live together. "Then we have the apartament on up from de banco which is too damnbig and this place take many monkeys and we are not possible to stay. But here we are with you to buy with us - nosotros for this the word? - yes! so small this word for us not for de banco not for de propietario, oh no! - Pardon, Que sin motivo?" astonished by our smiles but seeing the funny side and why it was worth a giggle when Lizzie redefined "monkeys". We used the expression many times afterwards when we ran short of dosh.
They were offered this apartment over the bank but could not afford it. Only when our Urbanization Cristimar was put on offer for first-time buyers did they rejoice. Yes, Cristimar was intended for first time buyers. But nobody asked us to affirm that we were first time buyers and our superficial knowledge of Spanish law held an unknown threat of being discovered and jumped on by the civic authority and thrown out of the country. Wisely we kept silence until Bernardo purposely let slip the lay in the law that allowed
other purchasers who were not necessarily first time buyers.
Furnishing to the best of our limited means with net curtains that billowed nicely in the breeze we used tea chests cunningly draped with Grandma Flo's handmade tablecloths as occasional tables. There were a few difficult times when monkeys were shorter than merely short, though the Banco de Bilbao were kind to us when we got behind with our mortgage. Ramon, our English-speaking bank clerk, told us of his early years taking spare time work in the tomato houses to catch up with his mortgage payments; it was like having an ally behind enemy lines when he waved a hand saying no problema! We could not imagine a British banker taking the same casual attitude.
For the first two years we could not afford to go home for Christmas; we were running two mortgages and could barely afford one, we were property-wise affluent, but pocket-wise poor although our financial trough uplifted somewhat when Lee at the Wanstead end took two lodgers on board, and we had some good repeat business at our end over the third Christmas period which freed our finances enough to afford a sunblind over our veranda which rolled up and down nicely, gave coolness within and a look of dignity without; and we discovered a mini-market in Estrella Edificio, in those distant times when saints ruled the calendar and donkeys stood in car parks and pesetas were few and far between, where they had real doughnuts on a Friday and we would buy four and carry them home in a paper bag trying to keep them out of the sun and we packed heavy woollens for our first trip back home. But now hardship is behind us - well, dogging our heels so to speak - and we don't have to worry very much, for we have cash flow, good business and firm friends in this foreign clime even if the strands are fewer without the rooted growth of home soil. We even hold an emergency fund in case Bernard sends out another of his workers who needs a bung. Last time Bernard was out he gave us a great sandwich maker. But yes, by and large, we are moving steadily forward.
We were surprised to hear that the house at Wells-next-the Sea was Renton's and Betty's first home, and they did bed and breakfast mainly for pilgrims to the holy sites nearby. Renton is a bird person, a friend to Peter. At first we found him rather dour and his wife Betty had about as much charm as a petrol pump. But time gradually unfolded the rich and varied tapestry of their early lives and we came to admire and to love them dearly. They spent the winter months at their pretty apartment - 52 La Estrella overlooking the harbour - returning home to Wells next the Sea for the summer pilgrim trade. But, right now, he suggests a bird bash to look for the osprey. Some bird people have spotted the great bird up by Vilaflor, and this is the right season, for these islands are the raptor's winter quarters. I give the osprey only half an ear for Lizzie and I are homeward bound for Christmas and there is lots to do; Joan and Barrie are taking on our bookings (mercifully few over this holiday period) and dealing with our mail.
We have done our yellow greetings-book without missing anybody out, 87 Christmas cards outgoing for our families and regular visitors including Mrs Mouthpiece, and our rather sweet art lady Jennifer Waite who fits almost exactly the soubriquet awarded to all art mistresses, and the twin brothers so much alike that only their wives Vera and Faith serve to identify Ron from Den, and our weird Indian family who would reproach us if we failed to include them, and our Scottish naturists who sent us a greetings card from Norway, not forgetting the Booths and their harmonious gang, and, of course, all our owners who are quite lovely people. With 63 cards incoming we must be mad! But these are our best people, clients, friends and relatives. And, of course, dear Joan is familiar with Siamese cats and will change Mimi's box, taking care not to open the patio doors wide enough to let the stupid beast out onto the veranda for yet another suicide attempt. We shall be gone for twelve days only, but the wellbeing of Mimi-cat Booflums will occupy Lizzie's mind alongside the presents and mess of wrapping paper, the Wanstead mantlepiece and sideboards crowded with cards, the kitchen overstaffed with helpful people, and the good-natured arguments about giving the turkey fifteen minutes longer and is there enough apple sauce for the pork? Well, of course there is, Ailsa made some and brought it with her from Lowestoft. And yes, the few absent ones from last year - Bob and Lis who couldn't make it, Geoffrey and Miriam who couldn't make it, Simon and Charlie who couldn't make it - was it all worth it for a short ten day bash? Why the hell do we bother! I remember last year's hassle:
"My good man, anybody would think you don,t like people."
"Only in fits and starts. Don't forget we've got our Indian family coming out on 4th Jan. And don't forget little Bernard who might send out one of his merry men who needs a few quid bunged under the door and we just aint there to bung it. Thank God none of our owners are coming out."
"I really don't know what to get for a man who has everything!"
"Hand-cuffs. I might try to escape!"
"Lee said the fan she brought you from Gambia last Christmas was better - "
"Much better, a really excellent choice. You can borrow it anytime ducky-puss; with traditional-type fans it's all wrist movement, with the Gambia type it's all in the elbow - like a tennis racquet. And it's heavy enough to use as a defensive weapon."
"I'm worried about the stuffing, don't want it baked hard. Tosca loves sage and onion stuffing, funny, she won't touch thyme and parsley. I wonder how poor little Mimi is getting on. She's missing us already, you know."
"Well,look at these two watching the rain. If they have missed us they don't show it. As for Miss Booflums she is probably enjoying a break from us in that nice hot sunshine."
"I think she's pining..."
"Not for us, only for chateaubriand. Did you cop those two parakeets perched on the rail considering the nutritional value of bacon rind? They didn't dare go for the plate and Mimi didn't dare go for the birds. Our poor wee Booflums has never learned to hunt."
"More likely scared of falling off."
"That's exactly what I mean. She's not safe unless kept strictly indoors..."
But this Christmas is going to be a bit longer than last year's bash. "Renton, old cock, if the weather's dry enough I could potter around in the garden to keep out of the way. We're doing this for twelve days, ten days is pinching it a bit. I ask myself is it worth it? Why can't we have Christmas without all this packing and labeling stuff and all this worry about the bloody cat?"
I get a swift poke in the ribs. Renton points, through binocs I can see them clearly, three policemen on horseback.
"Looking for drug ruckers I'll bet. Keep down or they'll be over here like a shot!"
"Three is not my lucky number."
"Yes, I know."
Whispering sinks into silence as they come closer, close enough to hear the clack of horse shoes, now they veer to the left and disappear among laurel bushes heading towards a dense stand of pine.
"How did you know?"
"You forget, I read of your encounter with three ME 110s over Belgium in 1940 in Jean Michel Legrand's book on the Westland Lysander."
"I must be going ga-ga, yes I forgot, I gave you a copy. Jean Michel was a long haul captain with Sabena. He was only a wee boy in 1940."
"Renton, you are one of Britain's great men."
"Bollocks! I just happened to be in the way; now Betty had a really bad time."
The famous Westland Lysander, used by the Special Duties Squadron in World War Two for picking up and delivering secret agents into occupied France. It could land and take off from a ploughed field; also used for army cooperation, delivering ammunition, food and water to troops on the ground. It seems little short of miraculous how Renton and his gunner LAC Brown in their slow high-winged Lysander managed to evade three German fighters before crash landing with stick well back to keep the tail down in a Belgian field. This was during the evening observation flight, the cows had just been milked and turned out to grass. The German pilots missed Renton and his gunner as they raced for the ditch but hit three cows.
Betty has told me of the time she went out across the yard to the hut where the boys slept, irritated by the thought that the Mau Mau would come again to steal the boys' blankets. Then she met them, about half a dozen tall Kikuyu with short stabbing spears and knives. She was helpless having foolishly left her pistol behind in the bureau. Taken off guard, she forced a querying smile. Then she felt a polite tap on her arm; Francis, her house boy had used his initiative, opened the bureau, taken the pistol and followed Mam across the yard to the boys' quarters holding her Webley .455 revolver by the barrel - "A huge weapon," she said with a grim smile. "All I had to do was wave it about and they left. The Kikuyu are honourable people, they would never steal in front of witnesses. Stealing blankets was a bit of a joke in the early days, then it got vicious, some Mau Mau leaders were executed, then it got really brutal."
The police have vanished; about half a mile away birds are circling marking their passage through the scrub.
"Renton, why are we here?"
"Looking for this bloody osprey."
"Sod the osprey! Christmas is coming, let's go get a drink."
We fly charter. Lizzie doesn't mind, but I hate it, cramped like caged hens with other people's knees and feet, can't see through the tiny window, queueing for the toilets. It's so damned primitive, you hurl down the runway for this massive long jump. Landing is worse. Renton was right when he said It's the sharp end of the risk business, taking off is optional, landing is mandatory. Rail is the only relaxed and civilized way to travel, when you start it's hard to tell whether you are moving or the train opposite.
Keri will meet us at Gatwick. We shall stop at the supermarket at Charlie Brown's Roundabout; although most of the Christmas shopping has been done we need cheese biscuits and some custard which I prefer instead of cream. Lee, as always immediate and practical, will be giving birth early in the new year. Gerald, her man friend, is the father of her child but between them there is an uncertain future.
Our neighbours will be pleased to see us. The male element still clean their cars on a Sunday, sometimes when it's raining. Ridiculous routine! We forget, in Wanstead umbrellas are standard kit. Now this is totally idiotic - a man in the street is cleaning his car with umbrella raised, something about rainwater is good for paintwork, to me this is carrying field-dependency a bit too far, but I smile warmly as I pass. And here at the top of the street is Mrs Clark standing in the rain beneath her red umbrella, there must be a purpose for standing here and I deem it likely she is worried about Jenkins her cat. Now we shall be gripped by this camaraderie between cat people and she is captivated to know that we have a Siamese cat out in Tenerife. She's a Joyce, but in fun I call her Blodwyn for obvious reasons and, despite her age, she keeps her hedge beautifully trimmed but needs a hand with her shopping because of arthritis. So where are the scouts, are they doing their Helping Hand Project? Blodwyn hasn't seen any scouts. Another link to the past has snapped, for when I was a lad scouts wore uniforms and wide brimmed hats, we also had sheath knives on our belts and nobody said a dicky bird. Kids these days have skate boards and knives are verboten. I mean, how do you help a lady with her shopping while carrying a skateboard? I must be getting old, dammit! I've been an adult long enough to know that shoppers have trolleys these days, they come shopping by car these days, no more Bob-a-Job these days - but it would be nice to see a scout doing something useful.
The fishmonger up by Wanstead Place has long gone. They had straw hats and stripy aprons but the supermarket opposite has taken their business so the two old gents have retired. There is an estate agent's office there now. There are estate agents everywhere - like cow shit in a field! Talking of cows, the holy cows are gone. Mad cow disease has taken them all. On my first arrival at Wanstead in 1976 I moved slowly down Hollybush Hill behind a trot of swinging tails. The police at Wanstead informed me that these cows were protected by ancient Verderers Rights as Wanstead was once part of Epping Forest, so the blundering cattle have a right to molest the greengrocer's stall on the High Street and chomp the sweet peas in your garden and you can do bugger all about it. But, as a reminder of good old times, the cattle grids are still in place.
Even in the rain and sleet those good old times fall a bit short of idyllic and I am feeling a bit short-tempered already, too near the edge of the pavement and passing wheels are throwing muddy water at me. How would the Princesa Dacil cope with all this? Fancy having to buy food like we do. She can just go out and kill a pig.
According to Keri, Arsenal are up this year in all the rain and sleet. At Cristimar with the doors and windows wide open the flamboyant roar of the football crowd comes right through the urbanizacion as if we were all present at the match, and Mimi comes scampering in because she hates thunder. But back in Wanstead in winter we are enclosed, doors and windows firmly shut, curtains drawn to keep the heat in and the silence is quite startling, you may hear a dog bark and in the wee small hours we can stand on our front doorstep and listen to the nightingale, and there's always those deeper joys that make London worthwhile, the South Bank, the concerts and art shows, the National Film Theatre, the thousands of books on trestle tables beneath the bridges, the musicians and entertainers and just being there amongst all that milling crowd is enough joy for our vagrant souls. For Lizzie especially, a born Londoner, these sights and sounds, her children talking, and all these things within unbroken memory her family joys must be deeper than a provincial lad like me can feel.
"I wonder how many books Princesa Dacil has read?"
"My man, the Guanche didn't have a written language."
"Well right. Success and failure depended on other things. I mean how did they calculate their way in the world without the written word?"
"They told stories, believed in magic -"
"We have politicians these days."
" - to exercise the life of the mind, okay, but where does reason lie in this mish- mash of myths and legends?"
"Not even in pictures. No pictures, no writing, no books. No wonder they remained in the stone age. What emotions ruled Dacil's inner landscape do you reckon, hopes for a strong and steady husband and father, children who give her pride and joy, freedom from war and want, friends to keep, dogs to defend the home, well-cured skins and well woven cloth, no worry about housekeeping or gas bills? And there were always the gods and magic."
"They did sacrifice their girl babies when times were short!"
This is madness, Christmas is upon us and we're talking Guanche and murdered infants. The library is warm, dry and well lit. In the children's section kids are sitting about at small desks. We may be doing this for our grandchild before long.
I shall catch up with my two younger children, Tina and Simon, at the National Gallery where we will look at the pictures and have lunch. I am amazed how love persists even in a shredded family like mine. I am even now humbled and delighted. But not this Christmas, alas, I really haven't got time to spend a day with them. The sensible thing is to put them off for later in the year, but sensible thinking is making me bad-tempered. Then there is the Queen's speech and maybe time to look at the garden and think about the shed door which needs an inch taking off the bottom - I meant to do it last Christmas.
To Renton London is a dump. He said, "If you love London so much, why the hell did you leave it?"
"Actually, Renton, I don't really know why, sense of adventure maybe. We flew out in June 1985."
"You volunteered, you daft bugger! And I volunteered - another daft bugger! Told to report in and that's what I did in 1939, basic training in DH 82s from March to June then I went on to Harts, socking great things after Tiger Moths, like sitting on an elephant! Scared shitless! Mind you, they were gorgeous things to fly. Moths were like leaves in the wind, I remember seeing this bloody Moth, made of wooden sticks held together with wire and covered with fabric and tied to the ground to prevent it blowing away, tethered like a bloody goat it was, and I thought sod this for a game of soldiers and I'm supposed to fly in it! March 1939 and windy as hell! So windy they nearly cancelled my first flying trip. My instructor - some old flight lieutenant - was arguing with some other bloke about whether it was safe enough to take off for 'effect of controls experience' and I remember thinking: 'Effect of controls, my arse! they can't control this bloody thing standing on the ground let alone flying it!' Mind you, the worst thing was rabbits; hit a rabbit during take off and the kite's a write off. Was I glad to get off Moths! However, by July I was doing night-flying. Got to Lysanders in November at the School of Army Co-operation, learning the country, pin-pointing rivers and ponds, artillery spotting for the brown jobs."
I told him I had read Verity's book We Landed by Moonlight, great on the Westland Lysander. A competent navigator, Renton joked he could drop a load of French letters straight into the medical officer's tent from a height of fifty feet! But he wasn't well up on mechanical technicalities, knew the difference between a fixed speed and a variable speed airscrew but that's about it, he just drove the bloody kite with its fixed undercarriage and worked the flaps. For now the osprey can await my return - but the parakeets! There is now an immense flock of them down by Compostella. They eat the fledglings of smaller native birds, something else to worry about when we get back. We might even spare a worry for Dick's fugitive scenario. But thank God, we don't have that Indian family with their mad daughter coming out until February. Bloody daft this: at Wanstead I worry about Cristimar, at Cristimar I worry about Wanstead.
We come all this way home for a silly walk among the trees by the hollow ponds on the squelchy muddy paths and it is now four o' clock and getting dark already and bloody cold. Lured by stupid fondness it's all part of homecoming; some of the gorse is in bloom, Lizzie says she can smell it, gorse has a distinctly coconut smell, strangely it's one of the silly things I think about in the dry heat and shimmer of Tenerife because my poor senses can't smell gorse, though the bright yellow blooms stand in my mind and I think of the many years it has been since I last saw the hollow ponds in summer.
Tina, we silently suspect, is spending Christmas with her mother, Simon is visiting his mother-in-law, so why don't we declare our interest in meeting with Simon's side of the Mann Clan in, say, Southend, just for lunch at our favourite fish and chip restaurant before scooting back home to our various tasks before Show Time descends on us? We're pushing it - but could make the time. Yes, we'll do it. Hope Blodwyn up the street isn't alone, must talk with Lizzie.
Despite my grumpy misgivings Christmas usually goes with a bang and I greatly enjoy, our table will be mixed adults only, for this year Simon's two boys are with their mother. Southend alas was wet and windy and our favourite restaurant was closed; my fault, I should have phoned first. Back home there is a squabble between the girls, a smell of scorched cloth and nowhere for us to sit to be out of the blame area. Lizzie manages to quieten matters, bringing out our little surprise package, a present for Fearless Fred, an even tinier teddy bear. After some discussion we decide to call her Miss Lucy; so now Fred will have a lady friend and the scorched apron is merely folded over and forgotten. For this is Christmas, dammit, part of the foibles of family life, the chancery and body-politic that stay within four walls.
Thank God it's only once a year.