The Secret Lives of Neighbours

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Andalucia 1945 - Franco and the Church have a tight grip on Spain. A vibrant Maria Dolores is beginning adulthood. When Juan Diego arrives in the village she believes she has everything but jealousies and revenge combine to set her on a different path.

First 10 Pages

Her life was grinding to an end. Living was just something that happened, but it hadn’t always been this way. She had had a life and it had not been without incident. Sometimes she felt it was only her stubbornness that had kept her going for so long. As another summer began she wondered if this would be her last, if it was, then there was something she had to do.

“Baby, let’s go.” She didn’t look to see if her command was being followed. She didn’t need to. As she left her sanctuary she paused by the window to study the reflection, the glass muddied by years of dust and dirt. It was hers but she was tired of this image, this haggard old woman. With a slow, deliberate hand she shifted some of the grime, looking for the face of the beauty that had arrived in Ibiza some 60 years earlier. Try as she might she saw no signs of it, nor of the innocent mountain girl that had preceded her. Her gaze fell and concentrated on her spindly fingers, closing them around the door handle. “Come on Baby. They’re waiting for us.” The door scraped open and the two old ladies shuffled into the low morning sun. She wasn’t perhaps the woman she used to be but she was still Maria Dolores.

The house was easy to locate. It sat in the shadow of a well preserved old windmill. The twisted Stone Pine tree that obscured most of the entrance was older than the building itself. The scarred trunk threw branches out over the road forming a canopy over the gate. Layers of pine needles piled up like rudimentary nests in the crevices where branches diverged from the trunk; Mother Nature neglecting the spring cleaning. A heavy chain that Maria Dolores struggled to wrap around the fence post secured the gate. It had no lock. The once white paintwork was cracked and fragmented. A rusted fence, buckled by the weight of a vast bougainvillea, was an eye height hazard to any passer-by. The impressive plant with its plethora of fuchsia flowers hung around the pine tree like a billowing skirt hiding the entrance to the dilapidated house. That was the way she liked it. Maria Dolores didn’t want anyone seeing how she lived.

Even behind dark glasses the morning glare made her squint as she stepped into the street. She stood to steady herself, took a deep breath then closed the gate, laboriously fastening the chain behind her. The breeze that came up from the Mediterranean brought with it lavender and rosemary that grew untamed across the hillside. It was a welcome, if brief, respite from the morning’s mugginess. The stillness was interrupted by the squeal of a moped as it sped past. Yanking Baby closer, Maria Dolores spat in bike’s general direction. That it had flown by in the middle of the road was of no consequence, it was still too close for comfort. Her eyes bore into the driver as he tore away unaware of his offence. “Come on Baby, it’s safe now.” She tottered on down the incline with her characteristic limp, pulling the more or less compliant mongrel behind her. Sometimes her gait tricked her, the forward motion moving her feet quicker than her brain could register. It compelled her to take a dance step; a hop or a shuffle before recovering again. The sweet sickly odour of the warming tarmac made her screw up her nose as she crept across the street.

That forgotten, decrepit building had been her home for over 30 years; its deterioration mirrored her own. The area had remained quiet but had flourished around her. Half a dozen residential streets wound their way round, and down the hillside. Neighbouring houses with sea views sold for hundreds of thousands. A series of criss-crossing paths connected the town to the beach and now the warmer weather had arrived more people would be traipsing by her house much to Maria Dolores’ annoyance. There was little she didn’t know about the area, although at 86 years old there was also a fair amount that she had forgotten.

She paused just before the junction of her narrow street and the busier thoroughfare below. Pulling Baby into the shade she took advantage of the moment to straighten her sunglasses. She had never got out of the habit of primping herself whenever she had the chance. If asked, she wouldn't be able to say how long she had worked as a prostitute, but she did know that one never knows when one might be propositioned. Take a trick when you can.

The cropped wall that overhung the main street was the perfect place to rest and take in the morning hubbub, as tourists emerged into a new day. Barely clad youngsters whipped by on rented mopeds. The first-timers tentative and cautious. The foolhardy speeding, weaving between imaginary obstacles, accidents waiting to happen. A dusty goods van stopped below her blocking off one lane, the driver ignoring a parking space only 15 metres away. He jumped out and without looking threw a dismissive arm in the air at an affronted taxi driver.

Immigrant Latino women in prim uniforms swept the entrances of the street’s brassy hotels. They made light work in clearing away the previous night's debris, thankful for the opportunity to earn minimum wage. Close by Latino men carried sacks of sand and cement up a path to one of the numerous building sites. These exploited labourers trudged through the heat, grateful to receive fifty euros in black at the end of the day. A couple of tourists rotated a cheap pop-up map and squabbled over which was the easiest route to the centre of town. Maria Dolores had seen it all before, this was just Ibiza stretching and yawning, a daily ritual of which she was a part.

She sat there expressionless. Thick rimmed sunglasses generously covered her eyes, pearly hair pushed up into a rose-pink sunhat. The creases that tapered from the corners of her mouth, however, established her as a woman of a certain age. She didn't envy the young women as they paraded along the street in tight shorts, bikini tops and flip-flops. She had had her life. Decades had passed since she, or anyone else for that matter, had considered her beauty. In those days her blue-green eyes, unusual in an Andalusian woman, combined exotically with her flawless olive skin and jet black hair. Her looks had brought her many admirers over the years, but also unwelcome attention. Let the young enjoy themselves whilst they can she thought, life will catch up with them.

In the near distance the Church of San Salvador de la Marina reared its square shoulders above the old port, the bell tower surveilling the quotidian life around it. These days nothing much intimidated Maria Dolores but she stared at that morning’s destination with some trepidation. The church’s priest, Father Gabriel, gave out food at the various food banks around town. This open display of benevolence irritated Maria Dolores but unlike others she had known, Father Gabriel hadn’t seemed sanctimonious. Something in him comforted her, she saw a man she could talk to. Since first observing him at the food bank she had tracked him down and regularly visited his church, deciding if he was the one she could open up to.

She was brought back to the present when Baby lumbered to her feet and took cover behind her mistress’s legs. Maria Dolores looked up to see a neighbour whose French bulldog was sniffing around. They had been neighbours for five years or so but had never exchanged more than cursory greetings. She thought maybe he was German from the accent. Anyway not one for talking a lot.

“Buenos días Señora.”

She nodded curtly. “That dog not get hot?" The words were aimed at the snuffling little canine. Maria Dolores didn’t lift her head, not wanting to directly address the person standing a little too close to her.

“He does, but, you know, he stays in during the day.” Jimmy was in fact English but that was irrelevant. Maria Dolores didn’t care and had no interest in him nor his dog. Late-night antics, noise and too many comings and goings had left her disgruntled with this particular foreigner.

"You'd think he'd get hot with all that black hair,” she repeated, regarding the dog with a little disdain. She had considered leaving Baby at home during the day, out of the heat, but how could she? The thought was ridiculous. They were companions.

“Well, I guess.” Retorted the neighbour beginning to take the line of questioning personally. A retaliatory tug on the leash stopped the bulldog getting too close to Baby. The exchange was over, the conversation killed before it started. The neighbour said goodbye and headed back up the hill. She watched them go, man and dog, the neighbour she hardly knew. An uneasiness she hadn’t been fully aware of in his presence began to ebb away. Maria Dolores took one more glance up the street then crossed over to continue her journey.

An hour or so later they reached the narrow pedestrian streets around the Church of San Salvador de La Marina. Life here was already underway. Waiters wiped down tables for the anticipated lunchtime rush. Others lowered canopies to protect customers, at least from the direct glare of the sun if not from the midday heat. Familiar greetings and jocularity echoed off the walls. The streets without restaurant terraces were crammed with stalls selling anything a tourist might need, and many things that they certainly didn’t. Classic linen clothing from the ‘White Isle’ and cotton t-shirts with lizards, a Volkswagen camper van or a Vespa scooter. Throwbacks to the island’s hippy past. The constrained side streets forced passers-by into single file and the inevitable impasse. A deliberate strategy to slow the procession, maximising time spent exposed to the merchandise. Maria Dolores and Baby skilfully negotiated these same streets, she occasionally raised her head to acknowledge a familiar face. Her apparent disinterest though was a pretence. She was a bedouin of these medieval alleyways. She saw everything she had to see and more, she absorbed it, habitually vigilant. The tourist season offered everyone opportunities. If she cleared a table or two at Miguel’s bar after breakfast, it would earn her a coffee and croissant. This was a small price to pay for her silence. She found that old customers always found a way to be generous.

Today, however, wasn’t one of those days. On reaching the Church of San Salvador de la Marina she tied Baby to a bike rack and scratched the little dog behind the ears. “Watch out for rabbits. I won’t be long.” Baby looked up at her aged mistress and cocked her head briefly before lying down. The exterior of the church had no remarkable architectural features. The small, gothic arched windows contained opaque glass but lacked colour or artistic detail. The interior was equally insipid. An enormous off-white concha shell which contained Holy water was mounted to the wall. In the dark recess of the chancel a three metre tall Christ was lit from below, its shadow stretched to the ceiling. It fascinated Maria Dolores because it lacked facial features, wore no clothing yet had no genitalia and no crown of thorns. There was nothing to indicate that it was actually a representation of Jesus except for the crucifixion and its lofty position above the devotees that convened below.

Deeper into the church she was greeted with cool but stale air, quite a contrast from the humidity outside. She made her way down the nave to the wooden chairs in front of the transept. Her arrhythmic footsteps, and the faint whir of electric fans the only break in the silence. She sat there a while thankful for the break and respite for her gout-ridden feet.

“Good morning Dolores, how are you today?” Maria Dolores didn’t acknowledge that Father Gabriel Ferrer had spoken to her. This was another ritual that she had little interest in. He usually greeted her in this manner but had given up any notion that she might offer conversation or give him more than a sardonic look. People sought refuge in churches for different reasons, he accepted that. He smiled and moved on. Dressed in church issue black trousers and pale blue shirt he still managed to look elegant, too elegant to be a priest. He was immaculate, his tanned skin radiated youth and vigour, his hair always perfect. Had she not seen him in an ecclesiastical setting, Maria Dolores could have mistaken him for one of the moneyed tourists commonly seen in the marina. She had never seen him in a cassock, but then Sunday mass had never been high on her list of social engagements.

“What day is it today?” The croaky words forced themselves from her parched mouth, apparent strangers to her tongue. Father Gabriel, paused a second, surprised at the voice coming from behind him. He turned and made his way back towards the old lady, keen not to miss anything. He sat in front of Maria Dolores, who still hadn’t looked up.

“What day is it?” This time her words had more strength.

“Well, it’s the 9th of April. Tomorrow is Saint Michael of the Saints.”

“Then it’s his birthday. They said it wasn’t but I’d know,” she paused. “I’m his mother.” Maria Dolores raised her head, but looked past Father Gabriel to the Christ without a face, searching for something in him, a recognition of her pain. “I’d know, I’m his mother,” she repeated.

Father Gabriel turned his chair around to face Maria Dolores. They were still seated in front of the altar in the church of San Salvador de La Marina. He wasn’t sure how to proceed, which was out of character for him. He believed he had a good rapport with his parishioners and considered himself an accomplished facilitator. The old lady sitting in front of him however, was a different story. Visual clues were scant, no eye contact, no pleading look for help or approval. Maria Dolores was a closed book. So he decided just to wait. She had, after all, sought him out. When the time was right she would continue. So they sat in silence. Outside traffic passed by, people continued their daily routines, unaware of the drama about to unfold only metres away. A motor starting or the occasional raised voice broke into the church amplifying the silence. Then Maria Dolores took an audible breath and started her story.

“It was a Wednesday. I remember the day because later we had to go back to the church. In class all day with Father Alberto then Franco’s speech to the nation at night. The church had one of the two radios in the village so that’s where we went. It was 1946. In those days nobody had anything. Father Alberto wasn’t much of a teacher; he talked about Jesus and the scriptures just like he did on Sundays. And the war, he talked a lot about the war, all the men did. But with the road through the mountains closed by the snows, the church hall was the only place we could have lessons, and that man the only teacher.”

“When class finished all us kids ran outside. It was a beautiful sunny day, the first day I’d felt the warmth all winter. I closed my eyes and let it soak into me. We were all in a good mood, the young ones screamed and shouted, happy to be out. Conchi ran ahead of me, looking for the bits of snow that we hadn’t already stood in and jumped on them. Every time she broke the hard snow, it cracked and she squealed. She loved it. That’s the way I remember her, that happy girl playing in the snow.”

“It was only a few minutes to our house and I could see Mami up the hill standing in our doorway all lit up in the sunshine like an angel, letting the sun warm her, just like I did. She waved at us to hurry up. Grey clouds were coming over the hilltops. It wouldn’t be long until the sun sank into them and our valley would become cold and dark again.” Maria Dolores took several pauses whilst talking but her emotions stayed buried. Her voice, still with it’s subtle Andalusian accent, grew in strength but her tone was prosaic and unwavering. She avoided talking directly to Father Gabriel, occasionally she glanced up at him but seemed unconcerned if he was listening or not.

“Our house was like most of the others in the valley, it was small and cosy. It had very thick walls and small square windows and was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They were whitewashed with lime paint and some had a bit of colour around the windows and doors. Ours was just white. The pen for the animals was bigger than the house but only had three stone walls. One wall was held up by some old tree trunks. The roof and gates were more solid. Papi built them with wooden beams he and some other men took from the old Jimenez house. Poor Señor Jimenez had been killed in the fighting the summer before. I didn’t even know the men were still fighting. Ha! What did I know? A week after that Father Alberto told us in mass that Señora Jimenez and her daughter had gone to live in Seville. Rocio, that was her name. We were the same age and I was so sad when they went. My best friend just disappeared. She came back into my life though. Papi said it wasn’t doing the Jimenez family any good so it might as well keep our animals protected. Like I said, no one had anything in those days.”