The name of this blog can’t help but bring forth good memories of a lifetime ago spent coming and going from a beautiful estate outside of Stellenbosch, called Old Nectar. Ah, the synchronicity of everything! But not the subject of my story.
It was the summer of 2000, and Elle would have recently turned eleven years old. The car was packed to the gunnels, and we set off from Winchester for our holiday home near to Malaga. I had made this journey a number of times on my own, but this time Elle had offered to join me. The rest of the family chose the flight option. I spent the ferry ride studying a map. For some stupid reason I thought it would be a good idea to avoid Paris. Not a good idea. We had caught an early morning ferry, but seemed to spend most of the day avoiding Paris. Finally, we were making good headway, and driving down one of the tree-lined roads that always read as France, I realised we were running short of petrol. Not a good idea, it would seem, during the lunchtime part of the day. All the garages were closed, and out of desperation, I stopped outside yet another chained off forecourt, and Elle and I wandered around the side and found the family having lunch. I don’t speak French and tried out a few hand gestures to find out what time they reopened. We were waved away with barely a glance in our direction.
We couldn’t afford to hang around, and I hoped that I had enough petrol to get us to the next town. Half way there I lost courage, stopped the car under the trees, and tried to wave passing cars down. No one was going to stop. Finally a couple travelling in the opposite direction stopped and luckily spoke a little English. For all the bad thoughts I had been having about the French, they turned their car around and told me to follow them to a mall where we would find a 24-hour petrol station. Now Elle and I could continue our journey, and finally we seemed to be putting the miles behind us. I drove and drove, and at last we were well into Spain. Elle had spent a lot of the time playing Tetris on her Gameboy, and while I was quite proud of having reach 42,000 points once, I was amazed when she showed me her Gameboy. Elle had exceeded, in one go, 100,000 points, and rockets were taking off all across the screen. She probably never told anyone else, but I have a few times.
We drove past Madrid, and I just kept on driving. By now there seemed no point in stopping. In three hours or so we could sleep in our own beds, and all through the next day if necessary. Not far on the other side of Madrid, and about an hour from Granada, there is a mountain pass. Going through it I realised that I was driving into danger. I had begun to shake, and my eyes were doing funny things. Elle was determined to stay awake with me, and I truly don’t think it was because she was scared. She rarely showed fear for anything until after her teens. I said to Elle that I was going to find a bar where I could get a coffee, and then see how I felt about driving on. I thought that this would fix me, and that we would probably keep going. But having now stopped, I realised that I was putting both our lives in danger, and there was no option but to find somewhere to sleep, and carry on in the morning. Where we had stopped was a large building next to a garage, with a bar and restaurant. Out front were many lorry drivers who were enjoying a late supper, having pulled up their lorries, probably for the night.
It was already full summer, and the night was incredibly hot and sticky. After my coffee I went up to the bar and asked if there was a hotel nearby. The man pointed up to the ceiling. We could stay there. This seemed like the best possible outcome. We collected our overnight bag from the car, and then proceeded to follow the man up stairs, round corners, down passages and up more stairs. It resembled a rabbit warren, and I wasn’t sure we would ever find our way out. But worse was to come.
There were two single beds in our little room and a window that opened onto what seemed to be the backyard of a grouping of buildings, and later I found out that it was part of an old farmyard. We prepared for bed, and yes, at least we did have an en suite shower room, but sadly, no air-conditioning or fan. As we climbed into our beds I heard the tell tale squeak of a rubber sheet under the nylon sheets; the substantial type to protect the mattress from something or other. I read but soon switched off the light, as reading was not doing its job of putting me to sleep. And then it started!
A rhythm quickly developed. Because of the extreme and suffocating heat Elle kept tossing and turning. Every ten minutes she would throw her body in the air, turn over before landing, and that way prevent the sheets from coming with her. Every twelve minutes big dogs would bark for a minute and stop. Then a generator seemed to get going every twenty minutes and run for about ten minutes. Interspersed with these regularities, people would walk in one direction or another down the passage outside our room. I can only assume that a brothel was co-existing with hotel guests. Finally, at any time in the routine, I could hear massive lorries thundering down as they emerged from the pass onto a straight road. Sure enough, as we left the next morning, there was a huge articulated lorry rolled over and on its side, just off the road and down the slope. There was no way I was going to get to sleep. Eventually I gave up trying, climbed out of the bed, pulled a chair up to the window, and I proceeded to smoke, read my book, and when too tired to do either, just sat and waited for morning or sleep to arrive. It was around midnight when we got into our room, and by about 5am I was astonished to hear the unlikely quacking of many ducks. I listened as they got closer, and watched as they came into view, in a great gaggle, under our window. There didn’t seem to be anyone driving them. Is this what they did every morning? OK, I thought, now all that is missing is for the cock to crow, and, as if it read my mind, it bellowed out its news that the dawn was upon us. That’s it, I remember thinking, I can’t take another minute of this hellhole. I dressed, woke Elle and said I need to go. I was finished, but I had recovered somewhat from my mammoth drive of the previous day.
Elle made no complaints and was as excited as me at the thought of getting on our way towards our destination. I promised her that we would stop at the next town for a decent cup of coffee and a croissant. She always had a soft spot for pan chocolat. I remember so well that little patisserie we found, and how we enjoyed the sense of normality that was creeping back into our lives. That truckers’ stop was like a place caught in the cross hairs of reality. If Madness was a town then that was it.
Around 8.30am we drove down our vertiginous long track into the home we all loved so much – our little paradise in the hills of Andalucía. Greg was not expecting us to arrive until much later in the day, and was so excited to show us the finishing touches he and Mark, his boyfriend, had been working on for the last couple of months.
When I linger over precious memories like this one, just for a moment it is as if Elle still lives somewhere in-between.