Steadfast in Time

Manfred, Joan, Barrie, Bernardo, Berenca, Harold, Claudia, Self, Lizzie.

It was suggested we might like to join Claudia's discussion group, for there has been a lot of talk about maxios and newbies and the man who ran a car showroom up by San Isidro and also loaned money to local people. It is impossible to ignore the tone of satisfaction that followed his disappearance and we suspect his political associations in the Civil War period may have something to do with it. Many people owed money to this man and somehow he is connected to Basy's Aunt Maya. He cut his losses, took a car from his showroom and fled to the mainland - it is said. The stolen car market is thriving, shipped to the mainland with false plates and false papers, the police are busy trying to trace the source. Harold suspects a British criminal component is involved. But the man: his connection with Aunt Maya compels our interest.

And it was Berenca who, after the event, visited Basy on a purely social call that turned out to be more fruitful about Basy's family history than our furniture-moving gang ever suspected.

Basy and her birds; therapy for a troubled mind. I remember Peter's disapproval of close association with wild birds, but I felt only naive fascination as they hopped onto her fingers as she sat humming to her little friends. It was Bernardo who first mentioned the left and right-handed sheet music and the piano stool. Piano stool - but no piano! Thank God we didn't have to struggle up that narrow outside staircase with a bloody piano! Occurring at a time when loyalties among the island population were still running in violent opposition led us to take a more serious look at Canarian politics.

And let us not forget The Astutos... OK, but they took no part in politics: observing from their parallel universe, they must have thought us a savage bunch.

I said to Lizzie, "Shall we have a go at being sociable? He disappeared, you know - the man, I mean. He was a Basque from the north of the peninsula. Where the men were really men!"

"And so were most of the women!" Lizzie answered. "Remember our sardine lady? She was your only model who wanted payment! OK, so let's be sociable. I'll do lunch."

"I always thought our beloved sardine lady was genuine Tenerfena!"

"Las sardinas? Mucha guapa Tenerfeno? No, my darling. She was from a Peninsular family of Nationalist persuasion. Somehow they have been protected."

She never goes to the lavenderia without an escort. And she was a frequent visitor to Hotel Costamar when it was the quarters for Nationalist officers. Too young for sex she must have visited with her mother. Too old for humping sardines around she is now doing charity work in woollen garments. We know the civil conflict is still carried on underground and there is reputed to be a link between her and certain people in San Isidro: I know bugger all, it's the female camaraderie that picks up the gossip.

Accustomed to any number from twelve to twenty, Claudia's discussion groups are mainly centred at the Café de la Noche where they have a conference room; the British Library would have been more in keeping with high-minded stuff but the Library was not available. At her urging, this particular meeting has to be kept small, for our subject matter is very local stuff and we now have a chance to illuminate the matter that has gripped a few of our crowd for years and, prompted by the news that Basy and Josef are now living together, we feel that another meeting at her small house with its outside staircase might be inappropriate.

Firstly the group was to be held at Harold and Claudia's apartment except that their place was too restricted and in any case they hadn't got enough chairs even for a limited group of nine high-minded people. I could have offered to loan a couple of our folding chairs but a sharp hiss from Lizzie cut off the notion.

So here we are at Cristimar which is comparatively huge, and the gravity of our discussion is lightened by the addition of a simple informal lunch of crusty bread with tuna and mayonnaise filler, home-made lemon curd tarts, coffee and wine. Our two small tables pushed together make a rather uneven base for civilized conversation and it means there is no spare chair for Miss Booflums who has claimed Lizzie's place and already has one paw on the edge of the table until a low growl from me sends her under the bookcase for a mighty sulk.

"Steadfast in Time. History, right! How soon after the event does it become history? Those two tombs are all over the press, Fred. I mean all over! There is also The Little Tin Soldier of Hans Christian Anderson and he only had one leg - dontcha know. Firm and steadfast, as well he might be, guarding his paper ballerina, and you've got all those legs guarding your new tombs and you can't stop it getting away!"

"New sites are not given to public knowledge. Our archeology people get very shirty about loose talk and they don't want streams of visitors trampling all over, so the subject is sub judice - if you get my drift." Manfred, our pet German geologist, has a stony look on his face, he knows the location of these tombs, but he's working with the system and not saying a dicky-bird.

Poor miffy Booflums who also has a stony look and, determined to enjoy her sulk, declines the offer of a small bowl of tuna, and with a distant stare of total disinterest, ignores our comforting hands lowered to pat her.

However, apart from collecting all the local news we are here in thrall to the past. But first we get Claudia to give us a practice ring on her bell... Ting-a-ling... beautifully done, followed by a small burst of applause.

To Barrie, 'steadfast in time' means the regularity of incoming community accounts; he pays his urbano on time, doing his best to escape official notice of his illegal supply of electricity from the solitary lamppost. "Ducking and diving," as he calls his perilous mode. He doesn't play tennis as Joan does which surprises us, for he used to be a good player in his youth: "Too busy earning a crust," he tells us, which was my favourite excuse when I couldn't be bothered to make the effort.

Of course, Harold tells us, it is not unknown for mischievous students to lay false trails - like the Piltdown Man, for example - "What do you say, Manfred?"

Manfred agrees. But enough information has leaked out concerning these new finds to cause him worry: archeologists removing the dust of centuries found an ostrich egg in one of them, and we all know that the ostrich is not native to Tenerife, therefore the egg must have been brought from the mainland of West Africa where the Berber people were accustomed to leave ostrich eggs in graves, and it doesn't explain the funerary urns either. Cremation was not customary among the Guanche who mummified their dead. Such a find has been made before - the ostrich egg, of course, not the urn, but the urn was marked with a cross which could not have been Guanche except for a later period following the Spanish conquest and christianisation.

There must have been an informer among the digging crowd, for now it's all round the houses. So we get a bit of free information! Sorry Fred, you got a mole in there!

"Doesn't matter now. OK, somebody got this stuff out. So we have something else to thank modern history for - The Computer Age, the science of boundless data; forget numbers, it's now all dynamic images, and ancient history is now revealed worldwide by modern technology, from Iceland in the north to New Zealand in the south, and we are not pleased about it. You should see the trouble it causes!"

Harold presses: "They are Guanche dead, I take it, not Spanish?"

"All I can say is that these discoveries are being shared with us as part of reunified Germany's spiritual rebirth. If I say any more I shall be a dead researcher by tomorrow!"

Lizzie sends the ball to the boundary with: "Talking of the dead, what about that dreadful case of the timeshare girl who was found in the boot of a hire car returned to the airport? Two of our elderlys waiting to be collected complained of the smell." After two weeks the smell drew the attention of the police who subsequently arrested her boyfriend who had escaped to Morocco. Why do girls do this, putting themselves at risk in foreign communities? OK, they are equal in all things, and in all things people are mainly nice with only a few predators dropped into the mix: "However, if you are on holiday sitting on the beach facing the sea Tenerife looks an OK place, but it's not terribly OK behind your back - right, Barrie?"

"Right mate! as Fred says we have the computer to thank in this century. The villains are out here and they all use computers; there are two back-packers I often take to the airport, the police never stop them 'cos I reckon the police are in on it. But it's the kids, like you say, kids find their way here because they're bored back home and words get spread around about making lots of money working the time-share scam, they reckon it's all dead legal -"

Harold and Claudia - and Mimi

A sharp bell from Claudia brings us back to order: "Who's going to start?"

Harold is first in the water: "Well, I reckon two world wars are sufficient to mark the twentieth century as a blood-thirsty era. Think of the millions upon millions killed. Yet, contrary-wise, there's all these medical advances, not to mention the Wright Brothers - all part of the twentieth century. I think history will use this century as a significant marker."

Barrie agrees: "Dead right, mate; think about what's been done with the aeroplane since the Wright Brothers - and all in the space of one lifetime! And what about the navy in Nelson's time - and Wellington at Waterloo?"

"Right. Britain's navy controlled half the world. Steady Boys Steady, We'll Fight and we'll Conquer again and again! But that was practice for the following century when steam followed sail."

"And steam trains. Britain's rail gauge was adopted the world over, except in Russia. Russia's gauge was wider than ours as the Germans found to their... Sorry Fred."

"S'ok. We've tried to reassure the Allies that there will be no more anti-social behaviour, no more Sonderweg, no latter-day Hitler. We are now social workers - a bit cynical like Alan here, but convinced that we are on the right path. Incidentally, Spain also has a broader gauge"

"Danke, mein Herr! Don't take anything I say as given. The right path calls for a sort of divine dedication - an idealism not found in local government. And without idealism you get cynicism; it crawls around in your head, OK?"

"Yeah, I know, Time-share is the down side: these street bosses bludgeon the kids into buying insurance - poor little buggers! My driving jobs pay better than insurance and it upsets Joan who prefers not to get involved with the down side."

This opens a general discussion on why we are here: over the years Time has bonded our group to live cheek by jowl with the other side of the fence, but despite an occasional confrontation it wasn't merely bleak compulsion to live with risk that brought us here, it was only holiday and retirement considerations in the comfort of excellent weather. Did we even consider the risks before we embarked? No, we bloody didn't! There was only Ted and Fred who, apart from avoiding arrest, did private evictions and Dobbo who we heard was wanted by the Serious Crime Squad who were just as deep in brutality as was Dobbo. Subsequently we heard about the murder near Pooh Corner, body parts scattered and found by children on the wasteland lying between us and the beach; another body found buried in a pile of builders' sand, and the dead babies found in the basura at Victoria Court, and the bloody remains of the infant thrown over the harbour wall.

"Like cooking with the lid off," Lizzie throws in, which brings a guffaw of appreciation; "but is it any worse than living in London?"

That takes some thinking about. A busy silence ensues.

"Well," she continues, "no worse, but, in our innocence, we were expecting something better, like innocent peasants going about their business with donkeys and stuff, country music, market stalls - not sophisticated British gangland business. Remember that execution squad Dick witnessed?"

"Yes but, what about the lack of public notices! A lot of these people couldn't read or write and they had a sort of town crier. And let me remind you lot about our first encounter with little Bernard, who tossed us the keys of his place in Apartamentos Los Angeles; his interest based on the assumption that we were too young for retired people and must therefore be on the run. And the strange characters he sent out to us. Long lets, some for two months, and we had to spring some of them with cash under the door."

Harold, being the informed sort, knew about the spotted visage of this holiday island but was prepared to take the chance of peaceful retirement, mainly for Claudia with her chest problems; for the Bees, thanks to the civil war, it was their first opportunity from a ruined and displaced youth for a life together; and Joan just followed Barrie out here selling property insurance and thinking it would be a better location with better weather for other naturists renting the small bungalow at the bottom of their deliciously walled garden at El Medano.

We do love their outdoor shower, just a hosepipe snaking across their garden and delivering to a shower head, the longer the hosepipe the hotter the water, too hot for comfort it has to be be run off to a cooler temperature, not only that but the tiles get too hot to stand on, so it's in their garden behind the lemon trees wearing only sandals, taking turns under the shower and hoping no visitors drop by. And shrieks that time when the gaz man called - poor boy! he dumped his two gaz bottles and fled without being paid. Lizzie recalling the moment, grins widely with a shake and a giggle, Joan open-mouthed with glee points at Barrie who had an erection and hurriedly turned his back on the shocked gaz man.

Tingaling-aling-aling-aling the bell is serious: no crude stories if you don't mind for we are running a proper discussion group here, OK! Clockwise or anti-clockwise? Conversation circulates anti-clockwise - shipboard style which stems from people being mainly right-handed. Well, yes. That's why every person world-wide mounts a horse from the left side, and why fighter pilots board their aircraft from the left side - yes, everybody. Well... think about it! Barrie's spontaneous expression of feeling has set the style and Claudia's mark of authority has little influence over the proceedings. Puzzled faces are still trying to work out left and right, interest has been well stirred on the matter, leaving Tenerife history well behind.

The bell calls us once again to order, so we leave Barrie's valiant stand and dwell no longer on right leg over the saddle and return properly to matters in hand.

OK, serious now. Very few Roman remains have been found; part of a slave collar, a few amphorae. But let's look at Guanche gods. They had a fair lot of gods - yes, says Joan, one of them stole our picnic.

"Not serious," says Harold. "Gods exist only in the imagination. I mean has anybody actually seen one?"

Says Bernardo: "Basy's Aunt Maya saw a great eye at her window: it was Gueyota who loves music and she could hear the throw of his tail - "

"Thump of his tail," I correct, "yes, that great dog could kill with his tail. By the way, what happened to Auntie's piano? Thank God we didn't have to carry it up those effin' stairs!"

"That effin' piano wasn't taken by maxios, it was the man what got it."

From a Spaniard "effin'" sounds hilarious and he can't understand why I start to laugh. "Siento mucho, amigo!"

"Yes, but these maxios are sort of little gods who freak about," Joan puts in. "They stole our stuff. OK, it could have been local kids, but Alan says - " pointing in my direction-

"Well, right! There were no footprints and it was all soft sandy earth. Even little kids make little footprints, right!"

"Right. But what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Harold is on the bench: "We can't be serious about little gods and great barking dogs. However, what we can say is that mythology outlasts reason, for it gives comfort - are we agreed?"

"Agreed. I'm all for comfort in my old age."

"When you get there, Bernardo, mate!"

"I am too old for me. There is little comfort in my kid stuff. My father's brother said he would to punish me if I ever spoke about the man he killed and put the parts in the furnace - maybe he would put me in the furnace also, but he was tío to me and he feared my father's spirit would give the word for vengeance."

"Nor in my kid's stuff," adds Manfred. "We meet in other places where borders meet; Time stands here, my friends! History lies here, my friends! The horror of Mein Führer's Holocaust lies here, my friends! We bring children to the border where we meet, Bernardo and me. This is steadfast. No historian can mess about with it while we are still living."

Bernardo nods hurriedly, as if glad to be relieved of a burden: "The Americans do this, their Jewish Association. They give money and camps for the childer."

Claudia is startled at this: the bell is poised, unrung. "Gosh! All this is new stuff!"

"Old stuff. It's just that we have met before. Best not to talk about it, OK?"

But he gives a brief muttered explanation of volunteer work as a sixteen year old with this relief organization of very loud Americans with their coca-cola and candy bars and the twelve year old German boy who spoke Spanish and English and wore a swastika armband.

"OK boys. I am surprised Franco allowed the Jews to enter Spain after killing half a million of his own people. However, my husband here is part of history, for they don't need engineering draughtsmen any more, not plan, elevation or even third angle projection, they do it all with computer screens. The drawing board is the draughtsman's tombstone.

Joan and Barrie

Joan giggles: "Talking of projections, having seen Barrie's third angle projection the gaz man doesn't look me in the eye any more. Maybe he feels sorry for me!"

Big grins: Say something, Barrie!

He shrugs: "Does size matter? No ladies have complained about my little willie. And it's been around some - before Joan, that is. Without willies there would be no mothers!"

Solemnity has a hard job staying put. Claudia bells furiously. I catch Lizzie's eye. Time for lunch, maybe? No, just press on. Now we digress to the frantic period near the end of the war. Bernardo and Manfred are a hesitant duo; not only children but elderly Jews were escaping over the border into Spain; children screaming when they saw German soldiers accompanying them, loud reassurances that these soldiers were also deserting and would shoot any SS personnel who tried to stop them and shoot their dogs who came in sight. And then there were American voices, kind hands and somewhere to sit. The horror has long since departed; the story comes through a patina of time and distance. "Hamburgers and Coca Cola," says Manfred. "are the best things I remember."

"Something new every day!" says Claudia. "May we now return to the subject?"

"The bells, the bells! Sorry Claudia. Let's keep it focused."

Joan is steadfast in the need for mothers. Her two boys are coming out, one of whom is training to be a chef. We all agree social-workers and technical draughtsmen may disappear but chefs and mothers are here to stay. Focus has clearly disappeared. It is the tone of our lightweight lunch party which means nothing of import can be taken seriously. Time won't change anything even if we fool around. So we make way for the chef and the mother who are separately and collectively at the centre of everything. The highest art form is the cook, for we can manage without poetry and pictures, but we can't manage without food or comfort. Right?

"Or willies, right. We'll drink to that!"

"And for mothers, mothers with handbags and prams!"

My turn: "Talking of prams, I used to take empty jam jars back to the Co-op in an old pram. I got a penny for two pound jars and a ha'penny for the one-pound jars. On the way home the pram was a tank and I shot lots of Germans. Sorry Fred - nothing personal."

"That's OK, I'm accustomed to being shot at, you should hear my project supervisor!"

Claudia sternly and without the bell: "Please - can we have less of the OK word? I have to duck when I hear one coming over - like colloquial cannon shot, OK?"

Spontaneous applause as she disappears into her own pitfall. We gather on the edge and look down:

"OK Claudia, point taken."

"No more ok word, OK?"

Claudia climbs out trying not to look foolish. Lizzie speaks, an icon for all the cooks: "Perhaps now is the right time to break for lunch. There's lots of lovely crusty bread, folks, there is tapenade and some egg and parmesan. We do have egg mayonnaise if anybody prefers. Bring your chairs."

She still has the wide smile and a splutter of mirth at Barrie being caught on the rise. I have tried her on the parallel universe thing, but with Lizzie the concept fails, collapses like a sad cake. Maxios she can enjoy as any child can enjoy fairy tales. But as a subject for serious discussion local gods can't hold with the Greco/Roman pantheon where, as she often points out, all the good and worthwhile articles of belief and learning are centred on the female form: for, at this moment with her blue and white pinny, she is Vesta, the goddess of the home, explaining to Berenca the delicate use of capers in her tapenade; without the pinny she is ever-loving Aphrodite: for these ancient gods lacking science had weight and wisdom to carry the world forward, but maxios are just local pixies and disappear as soon as you close the book. "And you must include the oil with the anchovies." Berenca, holding course with her captain, nods politely.

Joan on the other hand loves the fey and the fanciful: "Sometimes you see them sometimes you don't!" In a revealing spirit she reveals "Basy saw two in her garden. Rather stupidly she shoo'd them away. She was rather sad about that. She felt they wanted to show her something. You only see them when they move."

"I didn't see them. The picnic bag just wasn't where I left it."

The Bench calls for a description of the stolen articles. Lizzie comes in: "Just ordinary sandwiches. Eight slices of white bread with nice salty English butter with sliced cheddar, and apple and walnut pickle, cut diagonally."

"Daft way to cut sandwiches!"

She puts out her tongue: "Forty-five degrees isn't good enough for my man. He comes from a parallel universe, he likes square sandwiches. He also likes salty butter. My mum said during the war all you could get was whale fat margarine. Nottingham people put salt in it, they had very questionable taste!"

"But we all had salty butter in those days, it was made salty to preserve it. We didn't have fridges, my mum had a cold safe and a tiled slab and eggs preserved in isinglass. Now that is absolutely steadfast in time!"

Barrie adds: "And my dad landed everything he could catch. No bloody quotas in war-time, it was all barbed wire on the beaches and U boats out at sea."

Sometimes I just wish people would shut up so I can hear what's going on: I need a satellite dish to fish the conversation on the other side of the table, for I've heard about the Orange Roughy, a newly discovered edible fish that lives in deep waters. It is a perch and can live to well over one hundred years and we are in danger of fishing it out of existence for we are fishing it faster than it can reproduce. Now that is truly amazing! The answer is, of course, quite simple: stop fishing it. Stick with cod and haddock. Now they've got reservations for the Roughy somewhere off New Zealand.

"He's just the same with crosswords: give him a simple clue and he just can't handle it. What was that one, can't remember the clue exactly, something about taking four to get three?"

I am no hand at crosswords. Lizzie is, and she cops it in just a few short mins. "Trio!"

Claudia nods graciously: "Poor man. I do try to help him, poor soul."

Harold barks: "Know your place, woman!"

"My man is just the same, he doesn't like being rescued," pointing at me. "He thinks it's women who need rescuing; it's this imperial need for masculine dominance."

The Orange Roughy has returned to deep water: always the same, you reach the point where you hear something interesting and someone just has to go and change the subject! "It's the woman who constructs a formation around the man's needs because she just loves leaping in!" This is not spite, just game-playing, for sometimes I am evil Sir Jasper and Lizzie is the innocent dairy maid: other times she is Lady Penelope and I am Scrotum the butler.

Now there is a silent dare on who will take the last curly crust of garlic bread. Claudia takes it, breaks it in half, gives one portion to Harold: "Now we can start the second half - alright?"

Chairs are moved back into a rough circle.

Next: Steadfast in Time continued >>

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