Through the big window I watched the rain falling. Everything was grey and miserable. The glass was misted up and everything appeared gloomy, melancholy ... as if time was standing still. When it rained, it really rained. The birds took shelter under the eaves or under some broken roof slate. In the street, all I could see was a string of donkeys, accompanied by their master, completely wrapped up in heavy plastic capes.
We waited, fed-up, for the rain to clear up so that we could go outside again and take over the street. There, we had no rivals. These days the streets belong to motor vehicles – not so then. While waiting for the rain to allow us back into the street, our territory, I thought about the “sacamanteca men” [bogeymen] – I never understood that. How could it be possible that human beings would go round extracting the blood of children so they could sell it later? No, I couldn’t get my head round that. Did these men not have children? How could they possibly kill a little child who had never harmed anyone? Apparently, these fearful beings came from “beyond the compass”, or behind the “Lario”. They were places where children of our age could not go alone. How scary! They terrified us with those stories. We were also told that in some houses of the “Lario” there were ghosts. They wore white sheets and moved without feet, as if flying through the air . There were witches too ...
They were our ghosts, our fears; it was a way of defining our boundaries and clipping our wings. Because the street was our whole world.
Almost all of us managed to keep our self-respect, even with our much-mended clothes, darned and patched. We didn’t have luxuries or designer labels, but we kept our dignity during that post-war period.
And so we went out into our streets, which seemed to us much bigger then, and we managed to improvise a football pitch. Our footballs were not made of leather or hide, but were just paper or rags tied up with string. Yes, they lasted the afternoon. Now and again someone got hold of a rubber ball; that was a real luxury. The problem with our football pitches was the steep hills. If one of those rubber balls rolled away, we had to run like the devil after it. We had to do this in a great hurry, as more than once an “authority” would approach us and it would disappear.
At other times, either with real footballs or home-made ones, they would go up on the roof. We had to devise ingenious ways of retrieving our precious treasure; with broomsticks, or the rods used to pick the prickly pears, or by climbing on top of each other – whichever way we could, otherwise the ball would stay on the roof and our game would be over for the day.
But we were very happy. We would run after a metal hoop, many of them made out of buckets, and with a “guide” made out of wire, with which we would whip it along through the streets. After a lot of practice we would get the hang of it.
We would go to the fair to get little toys and gadgets. Our budget was paltry, not like now, and we had to scrimp and save to be able go on some ride or other, or buy some knick-knack. We tried to work out how come those metal guns with ammunition made from corks didn’t work. Why did they always fail to hit the target, when the grown-ups were always going off into the countryside and shooting rabbits, partridges and the rest? Later I found out that they had been fixed.
Also at the fair they would sell shrimps and crabs. How on earth did they keep from one day to the next? There were no freezers or fridges in those days. They used “uric acid”, or so some people said ...
I don’t remember clearly whether it was for the fair or some other type of festival, but on hearing the bells of San Jorge we would abandon whatever we were doing and go off to church to celebrate the month of Mary, the month of flowers. It was a lovely custom which broke our routine and transported us into a different world – pastoral, ideal, angelic. There were always flowers, many flowers – real ones, with a real smell.
I also remember the smells of Holy Week. The smell of wax, incense and above all, rosemary. The church was carpeted with branches of rosemary and it gave off that characteristic smell which perfumed the whole building and made you contemplate the mystery of what was being celebrated.
And what I recall most of all was the silence. In those days, in Holy Week we hardly spoke at all, either in the streets or at home; but in the church and in the Silent Procession there was a deathly silence. What respect, what devotion, what mystery was locked up in that muteness, and how much admiration and veneration for what was sacred! That silence and the absence of strident noises affected us children deeply, and it made us thoughtful, sensitive and aware. The noise of today confuses and stupefies us, and makes us flee from silence and from ourselves; it is as if it hardens the skin of our souls.
We were happy children, totally lacking in material things but enriched by our imagination, dreams, friendship, memories and sacrifices. We owned almost nothing, but we had so much, both within and around ourselves. The children of today become prisoners of their possessions, their gadgets and their electronic games; they don’t have the liberty, joy and imagination that we did; they don’t know what it is to go without; their will is not forged from iron as ours was; they don’t know what to do with themselves, and they get bored.
We weren’t perfect, we got up to mischief too. Some streetlight or other would get broken by a stone or a pellet. Occasionally someone with some money would treat themselves to a “Bisonte” or a “Celta” [brands of cigarette]; the rest of us would hang out smoking fig-leaves, or rag-paper, which was used for almost everything - toilet paper, wrapping things up and even to make those footballs of paper and cloth.
Children, through and through; but happy, healthy, obedient, respectful, educated children. Clean children? ... as long as we were given a “lick and spit” now and again, I would say so. When all is said and done, those were different times, different ways, different “industrialisation”, different education, different politics ... Things were different then, and we could handle any obstacles that we met on the way. Those were the ‘Fifties.
Manuel Jiménez Vargas-Machuca (July 2004)
Translated by Claire Lloyd (December 2008)
Crónicas del ambiente alcalaíno (III)
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