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Authors: Chris Stewart

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BOOK: Parrot in the Pepper Tree
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You’re thieves, all of you damn foreigners, robbing us poor natives blind.’

All this nonsense he delivers in a loud cracked rasping growl of a voice, that gets louder and more rasping as he warms to his theme, a cigarette clamped between the corner of his lips and eyes screwed into a shrewd stare. I used to think that he was serious, and the first time I sheared for him I was all for walking off the job. But Domingo, who was working alongside me, said Paco spoke to everyone like this, and it was meant to be good-humoured. And so it seems to be. I can now notice the signs of a smile playing around his eyes when he hurls the worst insults. Still, I appreciate he is an acquired taste.

Paco is only a couple of years older than me, but when I met him first, I had him down for at least sixty-five: the effect of the sun and the wind and the tobacco and the humours of the marsh and the relentless diet of pig-products — and a lot of shouting. A year ago, in fact, he suffered a mild heart attack that left him much weakened and even a little bit subdued.

Not long after this episode, I found him in the Bar Paraiso and he called me over in a voice that a normal person would use to hail a distant taxi but which was probably a decibel or two lower than his standard greeting.

‘Cristóbal! Come over here and listen to my feeble whispering. I have a thing to tell you. I have sold my sheep.’

‘What the hell are you going to do without your sheep, Paco? You’ll go crazy.’

‘I am worth nothing. I am no longer any good to anybody,’ he continued, with a look of intent stoicism. ‘And I am going to devote myself more to the pleasures of the bottle. But listen —I’ve sold the sheep to Manolo.’

‘You mean Manolo del Molinillo?’

‘Yes — the same — the young one and that shit of a friend of his, Miguel. They have bought them off me for a very fair price and even now are out walking in the marsh with them. I want you to shear them.’

‘Alright, I don’t see why not. I know Manolo quite well. He’s worked for me on occasions. He’s a nice lad and good with the mules; but I can’t really see him as a shepherd.’

‘No, nor can I. And Miguel is too pig lazy. He won’t be around to help him much. I predict a catastrophe. But they were the ones who wanted to buy them.’

 

 

 

Early one morning the next week I drove down the riverbed to La Charca and set up my gear in the pitiful shade of a half-dead olive tree in Paco’s yard. Soon Manolo arrived, beaming with pride in his blue boilersuit at the head of his flock.

I got my head down and got stuck into the sheep, as Manolo caught them and plonked them effortlessly on the board beside me. Occasionally he would stop and look out for Miguel, who had promised to come and help him. Miguel, though, failed to show up and all day long Manolo made cheerful excuses.

It took two days of hard graft to get through the flock. At the end, as I packed up my machinery and stowed it in the car, Manolo confided: ‘We haven’t got the money on us at the moment, Cristóbal… can we pay next week?’

‘Of course you can, Manolo,’ I agreed. ‘Don’t you worry about a thing. Pay me whenever you can.

In twelve years of shearing sheep in Spain I’d worked for some desperate characters, but I’d never had the least problem when it comes to payment, beyond a little creative counting. And I knew Manolo well. He was as straight as they come.

A month later I ran into Paco again. He was a lot better, and had dropped the whispering business. ‘Hey, Cristóbal!’ he began. ‘Did you get the money for the sheep-shearing?’

‘No, not yet, but it’s only a couple of weeks..?

‘They’re not going to pay you anything!’ Paco took to the role of shit-stirrer with relish.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, they made a cock-up of it all, just as I predicted, and now I’ve bought the sheep back off them. They’re paying what debts they can — feed, grazing, labour and so on — but Manolo’s been told not to pay the foreigner.’

This was something of a shock but I rallied as best I could. ‘So, Paco,’ I growled at him. ‘If the sheep were yours before, and they’re yours again now, and I’ve sheared them, then the one who owes me the money is you, because you’re the one who will benefit from having them shorn, no?’

‘Well,’ smiled Paco, unfolding a grubby piece of paper from his pocket. ‘Under other circumstances, maybe. But this piece of paper says that any debts incurred during the period of their ownership are their responsibility. So they’re the ones who must pay you — and I can’t see them doing it.’

Three hundred sheep, 150 pesetas a sheep — that was 45,000 pesetas — roughly two hundred pounds. It was money we could do with but, worse, there was the principle of the thing: it would be humiliating to be so deceived. So I rang Manolo up that evening, only to hear from his mother that he wasn’t in; and it was the same the next night and the night after that. Soon I got fed up with ringing and hearing his mother’s excuses, and fell into a sadness for my misjudgement.

 

 

 

A week or so after my chat with Domingo, Ana called me onto the terrace. She’d noticed a man on a horse threading his way up the riverbed towards our farm. We both squinted through the sunlight at the shape appearing and disappearing among the boulders. ‘It’s Manolo del Molinillo,’ murmured Ana in surprise. Ana’s sight is a lot keener than mine, but I could tell at once that she was right. Manolo is taller than most of the men around here and big-built, and he has such a relaxed and natural way on a horse that it’s difficult to mistake him.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, Manolo was tethering his horse to a fencepost just below the house. I went down to meet him, adopting a cool, neutral expression which seemed all wrong for greeting a friendly type like Manolo.

He too seemed awkward and stared anxiously at the dust rather than greeting me with his usual open smile.

‘Er… I’ve brought you something, Cristóbal.’

‘Oh yes? What would that be?’

He handed me a great wad of notes. ‘It’s only half of the money I owe you and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long, but times have been hard. We lost a pile of money on Paco’s sheep, and I’ve had to work off the debt on my own. I’ve been working all the hours I can to get money to pay off our creditors, and it’s been a lot of money. I’ll bring you the other half just as soon as I can earn it, but there’s not a lot of work at the moment.’

I was just ecstatic. I had known all along that there was no bad in Manolo and now the doubts were vanquished. I addressed him like a long-lost friend. ‘Manolo, I knew you wouldn’t let me down. Look, if you need more money you could always come and work for me… well, in fact, I could do with some help?

Manolo was delighted with the offer, and over a beer or two we settled the deal. He also filled me in on the desperate weeks of shepherding, where he’d tried to keep the flock going on his own, only to discover that debts were closing in around him. He shuddered at the memory, then grinned even more broadly than before. He was going to settle in to regular work at El Valero while I, what was it I was going to do? Ah yes… I was going to sit up there in the
cámara
and write a book.

Manolo began work the day after our reconciliation, and we wandered down to the stable together to decide on the most urgent tasks. He stopped with a jolt, as he caught sight of our tractor. ‘So, you’ve got a tractor,’ he said, with barely-concealed excitement.

‘Yup,’ I said. ‘A tractor.’

We were looking at a fifty-year-old Massey Ferguson 135, parked beneath an orange tree: a fine and serviceable machine it was, with little patches of bright red paint showing through the dust and rust. We’d bought it with some money left to us by Grum, as Ana’s grandmother was known. The old girl was a hundred and four, and I think not entirely unhappy to slip off the mortal coil, though she might have preferred something daintier for us to remember her by.

For my part, I treated the tractor with a certain veneration, seeing in it a new agricultural beginning for El Valero. The only trouble was, I found it hard to pluck up the courage actually to drive the thing. Maybe it was the fact of being a father, or the extreme steepness of our farmland and all the tractor accidents that people so delighted in telling me about. Whatever, I felt very vulnerable indeed, a soft thing of flesh and brittle bone perched amid that exo-skeleton of steel and awesome hydraulic power.

Manolo, by contrast, had no such reserve. Spellbound, he hopped onto the seat and impatiently began looking for the means to start it up.

‘There’s a black knob,’ I explained. ‘Push it in first and then turn the key?

That was the first and last time I would have the ascendancy in tractor knowledge. From then on Manolo and the machine became as one. There was simply no tractor job that daunted him. The tractor had a front-end loader and with this Manolo set about transforming the landscape of our farm. He levelled the hideously rutted track that led to the house into a smooth and gently-contoured surface; he moved hitherto immovable rocks from where they had hindered cultivation; and with the cultivator, he tilled the earth on terraces so narrow that they hadn’t been touched for years.

Through all this, Manolo worked with a pleasure that it did your heart good to see. Then one day the tractor decided to pack up in the middle of a field. Manolo was distraught.

We went to consult Domingo, who said it was the shear-bolt in the clutch housing. Manolo and I watched, hearts in mouths, as he skilfully replaced the broken bolt with a new one. ‘You must be more gentle with it, Manolo,’ he warned. ‘If you don’t take it a bit steadier, then a broken shear-bolt will be the least of your problems.’

We were both a bit worried by this and pressed Domingo for more advice. ‘Less of the high-rev thumping and graunching,’ he cautioned. ‘You must treat her as if she were a woman.

‘Right. As if she were a woman,’ mused Manolo with an uncertain smile.

It may have been a coincidence but from then on I began to notice Manolo paying small attentions to the tractor. The few parts that still had a chance of gleaming were rubbed with soft cloths and the engine was regularly nourished with oils. He bought for it a silver key-ring with a picture of San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers, and one morning arrived holding a colourful woollen cushion for the bucket-seat. Whenever he could, he would find some excuse to take the tractor home at night and cut a dash cruising up and down the Tíjolas strip.

For a time, I worried that the tractor had become an obsession, displacing Manolo’s traditional skill as a muleteer. He has two mules as well as his beautiful young bay mare, and if anyone in the valley needs a heavy load hauled up to some impossible place, or a field ploughed on a near vertical hillside, it’s Manolo they ask. With his
bestia
— the Spanish term for horses, mules and donkeys — he can perform delicate tasks beyond the capabilities of any farm machinery.

It would have been sad to see this skill lost. But we needn’t have worried. Manolo had a special bond with his mules and he wasn’t going to let them get out of condition. On summer evenings and at weekends, we would often pass him in the
Vega,
working away with the
bestia.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, I was attempting to carve out a new working life for myself. Towards the end of Manolo’s first week on the farm, with Chloë despatched on the school bus, I headed up to the
cámara,
sat myself at the desk, opened my ruled exercise book and creased back the spine. The computer I’d just unpacked stood accusingly before me but I did my best to ignore it as I filled my pen.
‘A la faena,’
I said to myself determinedly. ‘On with the job…’

Within a few minutes, however, I found myself staring at the husking machine I’d moved into the corner of the room. I could imagine myself turning the big wooden handle until the great iron flywheel was humming round like a top, ready for some maize cobs to be slipped in. I could see the maize jiggling then hopping about a bit before suddenly disappearing among the gnashers inside the machine, sending a spray of yellow grain spattering from the nozzle into the basket. Surely there could be few better ways of spending an hour or two than sweating over the handle and watching the pool of grain grow in the bucket, while the heap of red-brown husks grew beside the machine, with the promise of a warm blaze on icy winter nights. The husks make wonderful firelighters.

I sighed, looked unenthusiastically at the cheap plastic computer, and then settled again to scribbling in my exercise book. A small wheel in the caverns of my brain creaked into action; I unscrewed my pen and wrote a short sentence. Then I refilled the pen and listened to the sounds of the farm. I could make out Manolo chugging about on the tractor down by the eucalyptus tree, and reflected bitterly that chugging about the place on a tractor was where I wanted to be, rather than staring at a piece of paper, trying to earn money to pay Manolo to do it. Then the engine noise disappeared, and I could hear the cooing of the doves and the backdrop of a million cicadas.

The air inside the
cámara
became stifling as the midday sun toasted the thin concrete roof. Spreading my elbows wide on the desk, I laid my head on a cushioned bit of my upper arm and drifted away into a pleasant sleep. The next thing I knew, there was a whistling outside, and the door burst open with a resounding crash. Manolo stood there with a slightly bemused smile.

BOOK: Parrot in the Pepper Tree
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