It was 1983 and the start of another hideously long summer holiday (nearly three months in Spain.)
Back in those days, nearly every family I knew in our working class neighbourhood had a stay at home mum or a hands-on grandparent living nearby. So childcare wasn’t too much of an issue – unlike the stifling heat.
It would be years before people got air con installed at their living rooms, and even then many would worry about paying their electrical bills. Small fans weren’t enough, and so, come July, the summer exodus will begin for many.
Years ago, my grandparents had bought a one story house in a dormitory town (known to us as our village) not far from our city. The house was next door to my aunt and uncle’s, and so every summer it provided a great opportunity for another family get together.
The trip had been preceded by a celebration of my other uncle’s onomastic, at the end of June. We would sit on a bench in their large terrace, watching show reels of silent family movies of my siblings’ childhood, nearly ten years before me. We would talk late into the night, and I would always eat my ice cream quickly so I could ask someone else for a lick of theirs.
My mum and dad, siblings and myself, and my aunt and uncle, would flock to the house in the village. As my parents didn’t drive most of the time, the trip involved getting a lift with either uncle – my quiet uncle who liked to tell us stories about the landscape and the culture of the region, and my extrovert uncle who spoke about his military service in Africa or played endless tunes by Julio Iglesias. I was grateful for the short drive because their cars always smelled minty pine fresh.
When I knew it, the house was already quite basic, and years later it would crumble into the state of disrepair that follows oblivion. It had no washing machine, so my mum and my aunt would wash the clothes by hand in the outside patio or use my aunt’s next door. The only TV was in black and white, bar a green station in one corner that would slowly engulf the whole screen. The fridge freezer needed defrosting every week.
There were far too many people crammed in the house for the three bedrooms, so we always had to share. I slept in a large room with my siblings, in a bed that was slowly sloping to one side. One night I fell off the bed in my sleep. Another time, I managed to lock myself in the room when the door handle fell off, and had to wait to be rescued.
The smallish but totally great swimming pool was the crowning jewel of the property. There was a terrace next to it, underneath the vine tree, which acted as a bridge between both properties. From the other side, I could hear the voices of my parents, aunts and uncles, playing bingo, laughing and drinking iced coffee (one summer, they drank a German apple juice drink, with totally unexpected results!)
In our garden, I would spend hours attempting to climb the trees. We had some fig trees and kumquat trees which always gave over-ripe fruit, a basement full of old books where I first discovered Mallory Towers and other various treasures, and a terrace where photographic evidence exists of my siblings being bathed as babies. Years later, I would sit there with my noisy but beloved Olivetti typewriter and write my stories, which always had English-named characters, living in England and facing some sort of conflict. Typing until the ribbon would run out of ink. Right outside our house, there was an outdoor patio where we would all meet to cook paella with wood, the authentic way, sharing snacks and salads as we went along.
My aunt and uncle next door had lived interesting lives, owning a farm at one point, being of what we would call now ‘The Good Life’ persuasion. They bred hens, birds, rabbits, and some dogs for companionship. They showed me how to plant (and collect) potatoes, something that had ensured the survival of their generation in the post-war. Entering their property required me to walk carefully along an invisible line in between their two dogs, who would bark at me and pull at their leads, half-crazed by the heat.
Every day in the heat of the summer after lunch my brother and I would go next door to watch Knight Rider (in colour). With the blinds down, the heat was almost bearable. Sometimes in the late afternoon we would go out for an Italian ice cream in the village. Other times we would hose ourselves down with water in the patio terrace before going off to the pool.
Towards the end of August the hot summer would be cooled down by a massive storm that made the lights go off.
Sometimes we would meet up on Christmas Eve too, roasting artichokes wrapped in foil and lamb chops by the fire. We children would be encouraged to sing Christmas songs accompanied by a tambourine as a way to get our Christmas money.
One day the house was sold, as money was needed and it was falling apart. There would be other houses and other summers, but my childhood was slipping away fast, my siblings had their own lives, and life just wasn’t the same.
They were not perfect, but they were some of the best times. We had the luxury of time. We didn’t know that the winds of life would scatter us in different directions. We didn’t know that a close knit family like ours is not the way that it works for everyone else. It didn’t occur to me then, that one day, having lunch with my parents and siblings all together would become cause of celebration; that my brother would struggle financially and emotionally; that my sister would become so successful that her time would be at a premium; that I would lose my aunts and uncles to illnesses quite early on in their old age. We didn’t know that family arguments would sour the atmosphere a few years before the end, and I will always prefer to think of them in happier days, when they were trying to teach me a life lesson that was eluding the spoilt child that I was. I didn’t know how much I would miss their sense of humour, and how many memories they would leave me with. And the knowledge that family is such a big part of who we are.
Dedicated with love to my family.