One evening in the spring of 1977 I found myself sitting just below the Alhambra at a small white table on a moonlit terrace opposite a wooded ravine in which feral cats lazed and tussled by a crystal stream speckled with orange blossom. It was shortly before my twenty-first birthday, and shortly after my marriage to the commander of a Russian submarine had ended with a small fire at Heathrow and an accidental threesome with the Secretary of State for Defence, and I’d really needed to get away for a bit.
I took my first timid sip from the slender copita of Pedro Ximénez in front of me and felt my thoughts dissolve in its rich plummy stickiness. Luis, the curly-haired poet from Las Gabias who was my partner at the table and who had insisted on ordering me the sherry – he really had been very insistent – smiled a big wide smile full of big white teeth and asked me what I thought. I told him it reminded me of being ten years old and of Father driving me to Elmers End in the boot of the family Humber. And then, realising that this probably sounded a bit odd, and that Luis almost certainly wouldn’t know where Elmers End was, I drew him a quick map of south-east London on the back of the wine list, told him that Father had bought the Humber Hawk from a man in Warren Street with a camel-hair coat, and explained how a few minutes’ blind fumbling had revealed that I was sharing the space above the rear wheels with two substantial woollen car rugs, both of which, though a little ratty, smelt intensely but agreeably of labrador. And, once I’d pulled one around my shoulders and slipped the other underneath my bottom, I’d been enveloped in such a heady, doggy fug that I’d become quite giddy – but in a pleasant, comforting sort of way that was quite reminiscent of –
But at this point Luis raised his hand to stop me, clicked his fingers at the waiter, and asked him to bring the Pedro Ximénez bottle over. He then began reading me, very earnestly, the text printed on the label, which spoke vividly of sun-dried raisins and solera barrels and the warm dry slopes of el río Genil but didn’t – and here Luis paused, stared at me very intently, and tapped the glass – mention anything about blankets or dogs or the boots of second-hand Humber Hawks, and –
Now it was my turn to interrupt. Laughing, I touched my fingers to his wrist, and told him to shush. Then I explained, in the broken schoolgirl Castilian he claimed to find as intoxicating as I was now finding his sweet dark sherry, that I hadn’t meant to sound critical, the alcohol had simply transported me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the Spanish word for “transport”. The best I could come up with on the spur of the moment was “autobús” and this, not surprisingly, just confused him further. So I started to explain again from the beginning, keeping it as simple as I could.
“La manta tenía un olor muy fuerte,” I said carefully, “debido a Gussie.” The blanket had a strong smell because of Gussie – I was pretty sure that was right.
“Quien es Gussie?”
“Who’s Gussie? Gussie was our… Gussie era nuestro labrador.”
Something had clearly surprised him, but it wasn’t clear what. So I explained that my own blankets had always had the same comforting smell whenever I’d let Gussie share my bed:
“Sí, Luis. Mis propias mantas tenían el mismo olor cuando permití Gussie para compartir mi cama.”
For some moments Luis just stared at me. Then:
“Qué edad tiene Gussie?”
How old had Gussie been? Why on earth did he want to know that? I did a quick calculation.
I’d been about to clarify that I obviously meant twenty-eight in dog years, but Luis had placed his forefinger softly on my lips to silence me. Then, keeping his big chocolate-drop eyes fixed fast on mine, he let his finger drift across my cheek and gently squeezed the bottom of my ear, rolling the fleshy lobe between finger and thumb. I felt as though a thousand butterflies had hatched inside my stomach.
And then I stopped talking, because Luis had just stuck his other hand up my sundress and I didn’t want to spoil the moment.
Later, though, I tried again to tell him the story; it bothered me that he thought I thought I’d once owned a twenty-eight-year-old dog – labradors only live to about half that – and I wanted to clarify the matter. Again, though, he cut me short.
“Trithity,” he said – in Spanish, obviously, but I won’t keep translating – “after tonight, I will never see you again. For you have told me that you must return to England, and I have told you that I, Luis, must stay in Las Gabias to look after my widowed mother and my little brother Fernando with his poor weak heart and our three-legged dachshund, Pepé, who has terrible stomach problems. But – mi amor – I know, deep in my soul, I will never forget you. How could I? You think any man made of flesh and blood could forget those eyes that shine like two pale blue stars? And those lips that taste of ripe red cherries? And that hair that so astonished me when, having told me to sit down under my uncle’s olive tree and hold on to something solid, you first took off your sombrero? No, that would be impossible. But, please, mi amor, please – I want to remember you as you are here and now, in this magical shared moment of love, with the Andalucian moonlight caressing your pale English skin and the night air around us heavy with the scent of oranges – not as a ten-year-old girl, locked in the boot of her father’s car, hysterical with fear.”
Given that I was, at that moment, spreadeagled against a grubby adobe wall the far side of a sharp kink in a blind alley on the lower slopes of Granada’s old town with my palms pressed flat against the cracked ochre stucco and my strapless cotton dress hoicked up around my hips, his sentiments might sound slightly disingenuous. It was true about the moonlight and the oranges, though – if I tipped my head back, I could see the moon’s pale disc framed by the jagged angle in a piece of broken guttering, and there was a crate of discarded satsumas by the bins outside the back door of a restaurant just to our right – so I think he was probably telling the truth. Also, he stepped back just as I was about to reach my denouement in order to take a photo.
Luis obviously hadn’t understood my story at all, though, for I’d not been remotely hysterical. In fact, as the Humber had rattled and bumped around the streets of north, west and – it eventually turned out – south London, that pungent canine bouquet had caused me to become not so much fearful and hysterical as rather drowsy.
In his defence, though, he was probably just slightly discombulated by my telling him that, when I was a young girl, I regularly used to share my bed with a twenty-eight-year old farm worker.
Whoever knew it meant that too?