Christmas at El Figueral

“Mom, for pity’s sake, will you just get in the car?” Exasperated, I wonder if this whole family Christmas gathering lark is worth the mental effort. My nerves are already frazzled. I haven’t even driven the 28 kilometres along the C-12 that aligns the River Ebro, to Benifallet (Ben-i-fa- yet) yet.

“I’m not going without Zuri and Zippora,” she says, stamping her size fours on the gravel driveway.

“Mom, look into my eyes. They are dead – d-e-a-d,” as one would drive a point home to a child. Dolly Daydream is definitely away with the fairies today.

“Not so! I was talking to them over the fence this morning.” A pause in her prattles and she slams shut the door. “I’m in the car now. ‘Why are we waiting…?’ You can’t see them,” she trills and taunts me, “because they hide from Angry Annie.” She peels off into reams of giggles and suddenly withdraws into herself and becomes irritable. “Come on, I don’t like cold duck,” she flings at me.

I slam the Renault Kango into reverse and wheel-spin out of the gateway and onto our asphalt track. I hit the brakes hard, jump out and slam shut the old red iron gates, but not before I’ve let the dogs out of the house, to roam freely around the yard on guard, in case intruders are watching our rural property.

If anyone is watching the land they will by now have twigged my husband is not home, sadly, he is still in hospital. These last two months have seen my nerves in tatters as the time drags on, for weeks of spending 6 to 8 hours a day at his bedside in two shifts. As is the custom here, the family is expected to share the care duties of the patient, especially before, during and after meal times. Besides I must be present for ward rounds each day at elevenish – when I find parking near there. This often depends on whether Dolly Daydreamer is at the Day Centre, or tagging along with me.

I hurtle along the track and brake sharply and check in the roadside mirror supplied due to a blind view when joining the road at this T-junction. I glimpse a tractor, trundling along, in my rear view mirror. I indicate and turn left into Terrer Roig (The Red Road- they love original sounding road names here in Catalonia!) NB: the name means the road of the Red’s land and is so named because the road was built to connect with the Roig family land and factory.

Mumblings are intermittent between soft whispery snoring coming from the passenger seat. Hmmm! I need some uplifting music and thrust in a CD.

It bellows forth, “This is the Road to Hell”. I fling back my head laughing. This is not quite a Christmas theme, even the two flies peering in off my windscreen wipers look startled. I care not. This does surely expand my mood.

I’m motoring down past the Via Verde (a 47 kilometre eco-greenway, converted from an old railway, that leads up to Horta San Joan) and on towards the Rotunda (roundabout) by the Clibegas Plumbing Warehouse. I’m somewhat distracted and preoccupied thinking what other

Naming projects I must complete before the old year is out, when Mother grabs my arm.

“Stop! Stop! Spud will you stop this car!” She screams using my old nickname. “Turn back, turn back.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“You daft farthing, you’ve left Santa’s presents behind and the pixies worked so hard last night wrapping them all up.”

I glance over my shoulder. I curse under my breath as I pull into an entrance, narrowly missing their prickly pear cactus, and turn around and head home again to Casa Miramonte. Once more I must run the gauntlet through the German Shepherds. I wedge and squeeze my cuddly frame through the gates. I’m in. Now to retrieve the sack of presents in their not so pretentious Santa bin liner black sack. (No expense spared here by Sister Scrooge!)

Back in the car we try again to reach my cousin’s villa. I’d spent hours designing the wrappings. Different designs of Christmas themes, past and scary, present and rosy, or futuristic and way out celestial sketches. All crafted with my wry sense of humour and my glee carried over from teenage years of shocking people – doing the unexpected and to hell with traditional Christmas trees and angels.

In a moment of clarity and before Dolly Daydream dipped into her Christmas sherry, she remarked, “Why do you always have to be different? Why can’t you buy Christmas paper like everyone else?” I didn’t bother replying. “Ooh, I forgot you are such a Scrooge!”

“Frugal is the word, Mother, frugal!” I replied, not really caring.

All is calm until we have to drive through the tunnel by the weir at Xerta.

“Lights on! Lights on! Ooh ooh look. A spooky tunnel full of cobwebs and spiders playing with the Christmas fairies, I wonder if there is a skeleton in the walls.” This is followed by fits of giggles from her.

I wonder whether she has already opened that sherry yet. I shiver. It was definitely very eerie and chilling driving through that tunnel. I sigh and wonder what will unfold through the rest of the night. I don’t have to wait long.

I pass the signpost to Gandesa on the left and a beautiful bridge curves like a nail clipping or a sliver of a moon, spanning the mighty meandering River Ebro. It is all silvery, misty and somehow serene in the moonlight when suddenly a silver eagle swoops down onto the bonnet. I brake hard and hope no one is too close behind me. He stands tall and proud. A wingspan, flaked with snow, of two metres or more, stretched from tip to tip, takes up my whole windscreen.

He is looking intensely at me, like I should know who he is. I gasp. My breath is shortened and something changes the CD in the dashboard, not me and nor my mother. The car fills with peace as, “Who will paint the sky with stars” fills every space therein. A tear drops onto my cheek. This is the very last CD my late son, Stephen gave me, back in Christmas 2002. The eagle bends his beak under his wing to retrieve a card and places it deftly under a windscreen wiper and the two flies resting there scatter. He dips first his left wing and then his right and, with what looks like a smile, takes off and flies back up the river.

Loud and fierce honking from behind brings me sharply back to reality. I set off again and then turn into the swing back loop to cross over the C-12 and down onto Partida de Figueral, the riverside track that runs up to the villa. I flick my hazard lights on and jump out of the Kango to grab the card. I sit sideways in the driver’s seat to rip it open. A festive season card so exquisitely painted of forest trees with snowdrops kissing the trunks. Shimmering moonlight caresses the forest floor of windswept leaves. I look inside to read the words, “I always loved you Mom xx S.”

I fight to gain control and drive on thinking, “Oh son, why did you have to die such a young man?”

We are nearly there and we can see the villa lights high up on the hill, and are near the big carob tree where an electricity box juts out into the track. “Stop! I must check the post-box for Fatima.” I humour Mother as for nigh on four years we have had this ritual every time we pass this electric meter box. She is convinced it is Fatima’s mailing box. “She will have loads of Christmas cards from those Valenciano bods!”

She dances back to the car and my eyes pop out. Dolly Daydream does indeed have an armful of Christmas cards. This cannot be true. I flip through them. Yes, it is! Everyone has Fatima’s name scrawled on them in a different handwriting.

I turn sharp right into their driveway and am relieved that the old heavy rusty chain is laid on the ground. The villa looks all festive and welcoming. I need a glass of wine so badly!

Darn it! The old windy track, that I prefer to drive up the mountainside, has been blocked by a landslide from last night’s torrential rainfall and tempest. I lean forward in my seat. It looks like the road itself has collapsed onto the olive tree terraces below. No choice now, I must brave the steep incline in front of the villa. It doesn’t do my vertigo any good as I know there are no barriers and only the mountainside falling away to the right. The road is slippery and on my first attempt I slide backwards. I close my eyes and put foot to throttle to bound up the road, just peeping at the drop on the right, closely missing the satellite dish as I swing sharply to the left at the top and cruise into a parking space on the level.

I’m here – at last!

A candle burns welcomingly in the small side window.

The big old oak doors are open wide. The family are tumbling all over the expanse of the lower house. The smells from the kitchen are heavenly. A glass of sherry is pushed into Mom’s cold little hands, no sooner has she taken her coat off, and she follows the sounds of frivolity without any prompting. I hang back to chat and recount the happenings on the way up here. I present a case of white wine from a local winery in Bot, Terra Alta, to my extended family.

“It is called ‘The tears of autumn’ a beautiful wine, smooth and easy on the palette and lovely as a pre-dinner drink.”

I take a large offered glassful and wander down the few inside steps to join the throng in the lounge for more hugs and kiss-kisses on each cheek. I take a long deep sip and relax. Aah yes, the wine of angels, after all, it is Christmas time.

The matriarch, Josephina Maria takes my arm and steers me over towards a fireside seat. “Come and tell us all about the English traditions at Christmas. We will find it very fascinating indeed.”

“Well the first one is, you must not cut the small fruit mince pies, just bite into them. Also you must eat as many as you can on Christmas Eve and this will then bring you good luck.” Murmuring and nods follow, the heads gathered close together, hanging onto my every word.

I continue with the second tale of superstition and tradition around the Yule Log. “The men of the house must seek out a Yule Log. It must be big enough to keep burning in the open grate all night long. It can be cut into two. It is essential that it doesn’t burn out before Christmas morning or bad luck will befall the entire household throughout the coming year.”

Montse turns and nudges Cinta, “Good job we made our men go and find a big log then. The fire was still in the grate this morning.”

“Well that is good news! Now I see the candle is still burning bright in the window. That is also one of our traditions.” I inquire who lit it.

“Mama, of course!” Montse and Cinta shout. “Mama has always put a lit candle in the window, since she was a little girl, on every Christmas evening.”

“I see the house abounds with mistletoe. Don’t remove it until it is replaced next year – but everyone does when they take down the trimmings.”

Montse moves to the edge of her chair. “The one I loved doing with my English cousins, in Windsor and London, was the stirring of the special Christmas pudding. Each person must stir it three times and make a wish. Wishes are secret. If you don’t join in and are not married you will remain single forever.”

“Oh, Montse, remember the English children carol singers coming to Fatima’s doorway?” smiles Cinta. “I remember her mother-in-law saying that we must never turn them away without some food, money or juice. If we did then we would suffer bad luck for the rest of the year.”

Josephina Marie joins in. “I noticed Fatima and her husband were playfully teasing each other about who was going to bring in the holly full of red berries. These are said to be protective against witches. If the holly is smooth the wife will be master for the year. But if it is prickly the husband rules the roost for the year. In the end they decided to bring it in together.”

I smile at the teamwork. I also mention that many English families ignore certain traditions and decorate the Christmas tree far too early and most of them don’t even bother with a real tree.

This is followed by gasps of horror and dread. It should only be brought in fresh on Christmas Eve to avoid capricious forces.

Guiseppi and Paco are now standing in the outer circle and chirp in. “We cut the tree down two mornings ago. It must have green branches and be the centre piece in the room. Last night the children spent hours decorating it.”

The matriarch tut-tuts in horror. “Sons, what have you done? You did it a day early. Now we will be visited by ghosts at the dinner table and on the terraces of the olive grove!”

They nudge each other smiling, not quite believing all these tales, “Oh well, it could be an eventful night.”

“Gosh! Did the first person to open the door this Christmas morning shout, ’Welcome old Father Christmas’ and then sweep the threshold with a broom to clear it of any ‘trouble’?” I glance around but no one seems to know who was up first and everyone looks perplexed. “Oh dear…”

Cousin clears his throat, opens a bottle of Cava and causes the cork to fly off and crash into a coffee cup on the sideboard, much to his embarrassment and my laughter. Everyone is shouting “Salut” for good luck.

He tries again. “On this auspicious occasion, and the first Christmas for my cousins from that southern continent, somewhere north of the penguins, we welcome you to our Catalan clan. Not forgetting the Valenciano mafiosa and the English family too. Salut! Chin-chin and bottoms up!” Cheers follow from everyone. “Oh, what the hell, drink up, pull up your chairs and feast well into the night on good food, drink and laughter.”

Little Mother is already sitting down at the big table, with her napkin tucked in, and raises her glass, sniggering to no-one in particular, “And to ghosts of Christmas past.” If only she knew…

Twelve adults sit down to the meal. Two empty seats are visible. One is next to mother and the other one across from the other one.

“Are we expecting another couple to join us?” I ask as a matter of fact.

Paco remarks, “It is tradition. Fourteen people have always sat down for dinner on Christmas night. Fourteen chairs must still be placed around the table even though there are only twelve of us. It is bad luck to remove the other two chairs!”

I turn to Montse who is sitting on my left. “Excuse me Montse, why do the children not eat with us?”

“The children may only eat a formal dinner with the adults at night once they reach eighteen years of age,” she nods, understanding that I don’t know all the Catalan etiquette as yet.

I’m surprised. “But it is Christmas.”

The matriarch comments, “Time enough for them to grow up. Now it is their turn to control the younger children.” Pulling of crackers and laughter flows in from the kitchen. The children obviously don’t mind.

Peace resumes as some local villagers, waiting on table, bring in a huge bowl of soup. Fatima, to the right of her mother, pushes her chair back and stands up to ladle out the soup. Bowls are passed along, full of home-grown vegetables, rich and creamy, wafting wonderful aromas around the room.

“Frogs in the soup. Frogs in the soup.” Dolly Daydream loves playing to an audience, helped along by her nephew, who nudges her and smiles encouragingly at her.

“Big ones or little ones,” he asks.

I choose to ignore her comments now. By heck this soup is so good. I compliment Josephina- Maria on an excellent choice of ingredients. Cousin Spencer, suffering from jet-lag, is being jostled because he has fallen asleep and his head is getting closer and closer to his bowl of soup.

The first course is over. The roast turkey and suckling pig are carried in and placed in front of the gent sitting first left to the matriarch. He is the eldest male and must carve.

Cousin rises with pride and pushes his chest out like a bantam rooster. Deftly he carves first the turkey and then the pig. Cinta loads up a platter to go and share amongst the children. The vegetables follow and are passed along likewise with the gravy moat in close pursuit.

Josephina-Maria, as the matriarch, asks first if everyone has food. “Good, now raise your glass of Cava and thank the good Lord for bringing us through the past year, putting food on the table throughout the crisis and filling our hearts with love and hope for 2012.”

Everyone, bar one person, raises their glasses.

“I want duck! I want duck!” jabbers Dolly Dreamer but it doesn’t stop her from stuffing her face full of turkey.

Here we go again, I sigh. “Tough! Pork and turkey is what you have got, so eat up.” She pulls a face at me “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

“Mom, don’t be rude. Raise your glass, everyone is waiting.”

She pouts, “Why? I’ll only spill it. It is fine where it is, thank you very much.”

Cousin just smiles caringly and chuckles. I think, ‘eating with the kids doesn’t sound a bad idea after all, that is, for her anyway!’

The first sign of disturbance happens when cousin is pouring gravy over his second helping of turkey. He shouts, “Stop messing about, kids. Stop pushing my chair.”

Everyone stops and stares even as some have food on their forks half-way to their mouths. There is no one standing behind cousin. We all look at each other and carry on eating, lost in our own ponderings.

Guiseppi leans forward and says he has read that before dessert is served in eastern Europe and Russia everyone must tell a story of time gone past. It is good for digestion too. He throws back his big burly frame laughing in anticipation. “So let us hear tales out of darkest Africa first. I’m sure one of our resident ghosts at El Figueral will appear before the meal is over.”

His mother tuts, “Guiseppi, behave. We have guests.”

He responds, “Mama, they are all family now. The only guests will be the ghosts.”

Martin from Mariposa responds first as he too lived in Africa as a child and just loves telling stories around a big table.

“I noticed when I was out hiking in your mountains this afternoon that you have two huge ominous creatures that have evolved and eroded out of the rock over, I’m sure, a very long time. They look like a pre-historic crocodile and a giant chameleon.”

Guiseppi pats him companionably on his back, now that everyone is getting in the mood of the tales. “Oh, so you have met Adolpho and Carlos then!”

Martin mockingly wipes his brow for effect, “Gee, man, they sure brought back bad memories and frightening nightmares from when I was a child. My parents used to take us kids to the drive-in movies on some Friday nights as a treat. I don’t know how many times I dived under the back seats from the alligators and snakes that were in films like ‘60,000 leagues (or whatever) under the Sea’. I had nightmares for weeks. I can’t see a crocodile now without remembering.”

Martin continues, “Boy, it freaked me out like those spiders. Every time we had those horrendous electric thunderstorms’ when they seemed to split your house in two and banged overhead, and we dived under the blankets. Peeping out every now and again as the lightning lit up the old farmhouse walls showing shadows of gi-normous, black hairy legs and bodies of those palm spiders you’d see on safari. The ones that used to hang from your tents in the game reserve watching your every move.”

There is a deadly hush as folk listen in awe, only to be broken by Mother pointing out, “Look, that empty chair opposite me is now covered in silvery cobwebs. Go on look, look! There is a lady spider weaving more of her web, ooh, she has such long spindly legs.” This time we all witness it.

Cousin Charles says that legends tell that spirits float between heaven and earth and hover over the treasure buried deep in the water bed of the River Ebro. They are only seen once a year, and only on a Christmas night. A lantern floats and is suspended in mid-air about a meter above the swell. Two factors determine whether it is visible. One; there must be a moon. Two; the Yuletide log of El Figueral must burn perpetually throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It has been noted that uncanny noises are heard, like burping noises of children and candles being frequently blown out and then magically relit again, followed by gentle singing in foreign tongues.

Everyone exchanges glances around the table. The men are bemused; the ladies look on in trepidation. Yet no one leaves their seat to go and peer down at the river churning below. The above two factors have both occurred. What will happen next? Perhaps if we don’t go looking for mischief it will just pass us by – or will it?

Fatima says she heard, this morning in the bakery down in the village, that there is an old bedraggled monk from the Sierra Cardo Hermitage who wanders the street over Nadal (Christmas) and visits outlying fincas (farms) trying to sell poultry, having wrung their necks and then hung them forlornly around his neck. The Hermitage has been shut for years and no one lives up there now. Plans are for the monastery to be converted into a casino with money from top Barcelona casino magnates.

Martin chuckles that he prefers the idea of visiting a casino rather than coming face to face with a mad old monk.

Charles gulps and splutters his wine everywhere, choking as he asks, “What does this monk look like?” Fatima repeats again the description given in the gossip down in the street market.

He pushes his chair back, “Trust my luck. I ordered an extra turkey the other day from a visiting monk. He guaranteed it would be here this morning, but there was no sign of him.” Charles laughs nervously and turns to Paco and Guiseppi, “Do you believe all this women’s talk?”

“Well, I was told, at the – -“Quatre Camins” garage on the way up here,” replies Paco, “to be extra careful tonight, if I was going to El Figueral, as the wolves of Aragon move up the Ebro Valley over Nadal.” Gasps flow around the table and people glance at the windows. “There is more! The wolves are usually seen running ahead of the crazy old monk from the Hermitage.”

“No, I’m not having that,” says a frustrated, and a touch concerned, cousin Charles, “you are winding me up!”

Loud knocking on the front wooden door follows, almost on cue, as if someone is banging a knobbly stick against it. The children scream and duck under the fold of the over-hanging white laced tablecloth. (when did the children come out from the kitchen?) The table candles flicker in the draught. Guiseppi jumps up so fast that his chair topples over backwards. He ignores it and stomps towards the doorway moaning, “Can a family not eat in peace at Nadal?”

He is taken aback.. There, leaning against the door frame is an old monk with his hood pulled back and his curly black unruly hair tumbling in wet strains around his weather-beaten cheeks. His habit seems to be ripped in shreds, as though he has been attacked by wild animals. His legs seem scabbed with blood running down from a dead bird flung around his neck. The very sorry- looking turkey stares down with eyes bulging out of its sockets. He wears those Jesus-type sandals and Guiseppi notices his extra large, bulbous big toes.

“Turkey for the master,” the monk softly says.

“Be on your way, monk. You are a day late!” and Guiseppi slams and bolts the door shut.

Wine glasses are refilled. I decide I just have to share my little story from the days when I ran barefoot in southern Africa. “Every year I had the same recurring dream. First of all it only appeared, I thought because I lived in Africa. But oh no, no, as I travelled the world the same images appeared.” I take a big sip of wine and shiver, looking around to see if a door has opened behind me. “Always on Christmas Eve I saw a Zulu warrior standing, tall and silent in his warrior gear with an assegai in his left hand and a shield in his right. This Zulu would first appear on the outskirts of the garden near the shrubbery. If you approached him, he disappeared into thin air. Turn around and he stood on the veranda. Always silent, always watching and never showing any sign of emotion. You never felt threatened though. It was more like he was protecting me.”

Montse is the first to speak, “What was he waiting for? For whom?”

“I don’t know.” I shake my head and shrug my shoulders. “He has appeared in London, Mountain View, San Francisco, Yorkshire and tonight – who knows? The night is still young.”

The Matriarch says softly, in her Valencian mother tongue, “Shall we bring in the pudding …?” Her words are never finished.

A loud crashing noise erupts as a years-old natural stone wall belches its inner cavities out across the recently renovated designer dining room. Doors slam shut. Candles blow out. In the darkness from a distant bedroom the sounds of a bygone song is heard, “Just another brick in the wall” as heinous laughter follows.

Cousin Charles is heard shouting, “Will you stop pushing on my chair! I can’t breathe.” There is no reply from anyone behind him. Everyone merely looks wide-eyed in horror in his direction. The impressive hollyberry-red dining room wall is cracking wide open and advancing towards the dinner table and moving cousin Charles along with it.

We are engulfed by gasps of horror and shock chokes all of us. Deathly silence cloaks us all – almost funereal, churling quietness. Someone blindly knocks over a wine glass and I feel glass splintering across my dinner plate. “I was enjoying that!” I think peevishly.

A lantern light seems to be coming from within a dark corridor, casting shadows on a cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites and the sound of dripping water. Bats hang upside down, brown and horrible looking, with blind eyes that seem to bore right through to your soul.

Along one side of the enclave in the cave huddles a petrified family. They huddle close together to keep warm under old crocheted multi-coloured and faded blankets. Their faces show years of terror, having lived and toiled through hardship to eke out a living off the dry land from first light until the first star is high in the sky. Sun-ravaged skin. Eyes that have witnessed the horror, torment and torture that the tyrant dictator Franco inflicted on them. All this family had for comfort were their pet goats.

Dolly Daydreamer claps her hands. “Look, I told you Spud. Your cousin Charles invited them.”

“Who? What are you on about, Mother?” My head is splitting with all of this and I feel my blood sugar dipping. This is not good. I need food or I will pass out.

“Look over there, Zuri and Zippora, my goats. Oh please let me go and milk them,” she pleads with me.

Mother starts chattering to no one in particular. “I told you so. Those walls were painted with ox-blood.”

“Mom, this isn’t Africa. They don’t have ox-blood here.” I correct her, trying to stay calm. “Well, whatever they have here. Smells like wild, old farty pigs” but the unfolding scene seems to have no effect on her, our dear giggly Dolly Daydreamer.

Cool night air seems to be filtering through the open cavities. The sound of marching echoes closer and closer. It is not the even, practised steps like someone on parade. Rather a tired old wounded soldier, dragging one leg behind.

The Matriarch screams and seems to drop in a dead faint as the ghost of Francisco Franco – the dictator of Spain for 36 years – enters her family home and makes his way to the thirteenth chair and plonks himself down wearily next to Mother.

I hear Paco murmur, “But Franco has been dead since 1975. How can this be?”

Cousin Charles re-lights the candles, hoping this is all a figment of everyone’s mind and thinking, ‘boy oh boy, that new wine, Dark Chocolate, Spencer brought from South Africa has some kick in it!’ All eyes turn to Franco’s chair. The dictator is still there in all his ghostly apparel but still in uniform.

Mother leans forward and doesn’t seem at all perturbed by his appearance. “I like your brass buttons” and she tries to finger them. “But what is the gold rope on your shoulders for?”

“Shut up, you stupid woman. Get off me, vaya!” he growls at her in Spanish.

Dolly Daydreamer flounces back, “Shan’t! I don’t like your moustache and you can’t even speak Catalan, you ignoramus!” She sniggers into the back of her hands, “Hitler had one of those hairy caterpillars on his lips and look what happened to him!”

Franco coughs and spits the mucus on the floor, growling, “I want my dinner.”

Scowling at my dementia-ridden mother and banging his fist on the table. “Fetch my dinner, woman!”

Bless her. She is the only one not over-awed by the events unfolding. Promptly she sticks her tongue out at him. “Shan’t! Fetch your own dinner you old ugly brute. You smell horrible.”

Pink Floyd still plays on from someone’s bedroom but I can hear other music, chanting, coming from outside. I’m sure I’m not imagining it. I need air anyway. I walk out through the patio doors next to the poolside and I don’t realize it at first, but a person is pointing down the hillside with his spear. It is my Zulu warrior – oh my gosh! I stand close to him and he does not disappear this time.

We watch together as a candle-lit choir of ghosts wind their way up the rough earth driveway, taking the old route, ignoring the landslide. The closer they get to the villa, the more ferociously the wind blows. They pause and circle the 200 year old giant fig tree, (el figueral) chanting in Catalan.

The Zulu points again at them. They are like giant wasps, in yellow and black jackets, with silvery transparent wings. The tall maize-coloured candles stay lit even in the gusty winds pounding the hillside. The buzzing and chanting is very loud – so very intense, and reaches a crashing crescendo and then stops. Only the wind can be heard now.

I return to the warmth of the dining room where some sense of normality has returned – or has it?

On the fourteenth, previously unoccupied, chair sits a little girl with long flowing ginger ringlets framing a ghostly pale face with a cute turned-up nose and a serene smile. She is picture-perfect except for one malformed eye. The other is piercing ice-blue in colour. She wears a patched nightgown sewn lovingly from faded squares of long-forgotten summer frocks.

Cinta whispers to me that the girl entered the room from the cave carrying a red candle, walking softly on bare feet, on tip-toes. She circled once right around the table, humming, and came to stop by the empty chair and looked, unflinchingly, straight into the cold glare of Francisco Franco’s ghoulish ghost.

This spooks Franco and he shouts, “Shut her eyes. Shut the eyes of this devil child – bruja!” (witch)

But she tosses her ginger curls and leans across the table, kneeling on her chair. “You, Franco, did this to me. You killed my family. You burned out my eye with a hot poker. Now I will tread on your spirit every day reminding you of what you did!”

Franco tries to stand up from his chair, but now he is tied to it with spiritual chains and can no longer flee. He shouts again in my mother’s face, “I want my dinner. Where is my dinner?”

“You starved my village,” the child screeches into his face. “Now watch us eat and lick our lips and fingers. Not a drop of the juice from the meat will touch your plate. Suffer!” She falls back exhausted into her seat.

Josephina Maria has recovered and calls for the dessert to be served. Bowls are filled with steaming custard poured over good old English Christmas pudding and passed along the table. Suddenly one pudding plate takes flight on its own and wings along the table to smack the ghost of Francisco Franco full in his face. A shout of pain erupts and blood drizzles down on to the 150-year-old Cugats’ laced cloth – a heirloom passed down from one generation to another.

Although it is faded now into a soft cream from age, it runs red with his blood – but how much blood did this dictator order to be spilled…

The family ignore him, determined to retrieve something of the Christmas cheer before the night is over – but in vain.

Glasses clink, but who is drinking?

We all turn and look at the French doors as one by one the candle-lit ghost choir of black and yellow wasps slides through the glass effortlessly and circles the table. They wobble and buzz, chanting weird and old forgotten Catalan songs.

Franco shouts, “Stop that noise! I forbid you to use the Catalan language.”

They ignore him. The ritual continues for a moment longer. Then in a whoosh they pick up his chair and hurtle him towards the open fire. Fiery arms seem to reach out and grab him, sucking him down screaming into a flaming hell where he justly belongs.

The embers of the fire return to a gentle burn. Peace encircles the fire. I look out to the poolside. My Zulu warrior has disappeared into the night. The moon still shines now in the misty cold night air.

My mother is playing with something on the table cloth. “That horrible man has gone, but look, he left these behind.” She shows us brass buttons, and some old, very old, peseta coins.

Montse is the first to notice that the child with ginger curls too has vanished but has left her ribbons behind – the colour of rainbows.

I yawn and excuse myself, saying to my cousin Charles that it is long past Mother’s bedtime and I still have the drive home back to ‘Partida de San Bernabe’. But first I must negotiate his driveway.

We hug and kiss everyone goodnight, most seem to still be in a daze. Back in the safety of the old Kango jalopy we bump down the driveway.

“Oops, took that corner a bit fast,” as the car veers a touch too close to the mountain edge for my liking. I switch my headlights on and pick up the ghostly goats of Christmas past as we see Zuri and Zippora perched high on the rocks watching a lantern moving back and forth across the water.

We are nearly at the gateway now and I see the outline of a man ahead in the road. We honk, but no response. I break sharply to avoid running into him. I jump out of the vehicle. I notice the bedraggled form of the crazy old monk bent forth over the closed rusty gate-chain, still with the rather sorry-looking bird around his neck.

I straighten up, wondering what the heck to do. It is hours since Guiseppi threw him out of the house and bolted the door. I realise that we are two women alone and a long way beyond shouting distance of the villa, let alone that they would be able to hear us in this wild wind now whipping the soft snow. I search for a large stick to prod him, shouting all the time.


Well, there is nothing else for it. I climb over the gate-chain, careful not to touch him in case he grabs me. I face him a metre away, my shoes now crunching on the snow-covered gravel and peer into his face to get a closer look, assuming he is in a drink-enforced pose.

The steel-cold eyes of the monk look straight back – a dead man’s eyes glaring at me!


Buja! = witch Vaya! = Get out

El Figueral = a fig tree

‘Partida de San Bernabe’ = ‘The way to Saint Bernabe’

Veranda = South African word for a covered patio

Assegai = South African word for an African spear

(C) Copyright 2022 Rosie Reay Tales from the Ebrovoice

Vacation rental Dorado coast of SpainThe beautiful and fully restored real Villa El Figueral is near Bennifalet in the Tortosa region of Spain. It is right on the Ebro river for super great fishing. It is available for rent for self-catering holidays.