To commemorate such a wonderful occasion, there is a Miranda Innes giveaway at the end of the post.
So just for you, here is the first chapter of Miranda's book. It is so hot off the press, it still doesn't have a title.
Chapter one. The Beatific and the Beastly.
There is such a thing as a seven-year itch. It hit us like chicken pox in May 2004 after seven years and four months in the wild Andalucían campo. Dan and I had been living together in a rambling finca with courtyards and fountains, lavender hilltops rippling to the distant horizon and the jagged limestone pinnacles of El Torcal glowing scarlet at sunset. Dan Pearce is a cartoonist and painter, whose graphic novel, ‘Depression, a Beginner’s Guide’ had yet to romp its way to the bookstalls, despite the lifetime’s intimate research that went into it.
He and I met on the very day that I had bought the ruined farmhouse in Andalucía, and we fell in love immediately. He moved out to Spain with me and – as comparative strangers - we lived on a building site for those seven relationship-testing years.
We survived the six-foot snake roosting beneath the sofa; Minnie our oversexed Boxer made off with a silver coated wolf and disappeared for two days; we wondered – quite apprehensively – what feline trio had left pug marks as big as tennis balls in the soft mud round the spring. I tried unsuccessfully to lure a gecko out of my printer which he considered a pretty des. res. Our eccentric neighbours, Giorgio and Martina had a fourth child, Neroli. An itinerant Spanish pony fell into their swimming pool, and was rescued by Martina waist-deep in water, but not before it had copiously emptied its bowels.
We had seen 2000 glamorous sunsets and possibly two sunrises. From the manic bipolar experience of buying, demolishing, building and finishing we had reached a serene plateau of routine.
Despite the town hall functionary giving us cast iron assurances sworn on the memory of her mother - that no one could possibly get permission to build on our hill - the bun-shaped baker built four hideous holiday homes (he was after all a mate of the local mayor) in the fields below us with Grandmother’s Footstep’s stealth. Senor Arrabal our neighbour - ancient, mute, and once a bareback rider started building a bungalow to adorn our West view. Domenico the policeman planted olive trees and fenced his land prior to building a casita above us.
We were fretting about finding ourselves in the middle of a holiday village when Dan had a phone call. It was his sister Kitty, advising him that their 84-year-old mother was ill with some kind of gastric upset, and that perhaps he should fly home to see her. Fortunately he did, because a week later she was dead.
She was a strong, grand widow in the style of a Lorca materfamilias – reticent, reserved, perfectionist. Her death, which she must have foreseen, was choreographed in such a way as to have her entire family present while causing the least bother possible to anyone. She waited until she felt confident that all her children were all right, safely settled in respectable relationships, and then she just left in midsentence. No fuss, no drama, no conflict. The will was clear, there was no ambiguity, no unkind message camouflaged in the legal jargon.
She died in November 2003, and we spent a sunny frost-sparkling Christmas at her home, an Old Vicarage in Suffolk, delaying the daunting prospect of sorting out the unbelievable mountains of stuff that she and her husband David had accumulated during their fifty years there. There were plan chests full of his father’s sketch books, and crates of photos and prints dating from her photographic career, torn and faded, peopled with mysterious unidentifiable figures and recording tantalizing moments of unexplained joy – a secret history that will never now be unraveled. There were Gimson bedroom suites, De Morgan tiles, Paul Nash pastels – wherever you looked, there were priceless things jammed into drawers and boxes, teetering on windowsills and shoved under beds. Paintings and architectural salvage, Persian rugs and Adam fireplaces bought for the price of a pint, the overwhelming hoard of a lifetime’s beady vigilance at auctions and junk shops. The books alone required three experts for valuation.
Few people are equal to this kind of exhausting emotional assault course. Dan certainly was not, and he settled into a depression so dark that it seemed as though daylight would never come. He regretted all the conversations he had not had with his mother, all the questions he had not asked. He mooned around aimlessly, waiting for her to come and tell him what to do next. To my relief, she did not oblige. Christmas passed, my sons came briefly to the Old Vicarage and we felt like trespassers, then Dan and I returned to Spain.
Winter lingered. In the spring of 2004 there was more rain than anyone remembered ever; great gushing channels whisked the track away overnight, and day after day dawned grey and cold. We had to buy twice as much firewood as usual. Whereas previously swimming in April had been the norm, throughout that May we had winter duvets, log fires, radiators and an electric blanket.
Within our rattling, draughty house, the air was thick with despair. Dan sank into a fetid, toxic torpor: insomniac all night, sleeping in a heap all day, weeping at frequent intervals. He was grief and pain concentrated. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was no tunnel. We were buried alive. He gave up smoking, recklessly jettisoning the comforting fug that had insulated him from the prickly demands of the real world for the past thirty years.
After six months, when I thought he might just die from apathy, might just give up bothering to breathe, he scrambled back onto the shore of life, as weak as a day old kitten.
Unbelievably, what was ostensibly causing his grief besides the loss of his mother was his imminent wealth. Most people find this kind of thing bearable, some even grit their teeth and force themselves to enjoy an infusion of extra cash. Not Dan. He was racked with something which wasn’t pleasure, and set about divesting himself of as much as possible as quickly as he could. Before a single penny had crossed his palm, he had managed to sink 4K in the coolest Mac desktop. He should have had a bulk discount – he bought computers for everyone.
Night and day he fretted about how he was going to get rid of his inheritance, and for a while he thought that Pepe had the solution – our log provider had a piece of land to sell. The plan was to build the perfect uncompromisingly modern house, incorporating all the lessons (principally about the necessity for a functional heating system) we had learned in our seven years in Spain. Building houses is like writing books in one way – as soon as you finish either, you perceive finally how you should have done it. I said as long as Pepe’s land was flat and had mature trees, I would go along with it.
Despite the fact that the naked, treeless patch of shale was perched high on a narrow windswept ridge with dizzy precipices to east and west, Dan thought it ideal for building. I said nothing – it was his money, and I was scarcely in a position to be picky about ludicrous investments having chucked all my cash from the sale of my London house into an ‘investment’ in Marrakech. (If anything can make you old and poor before your time, it is buying and attempting to run property in Marrakech. The problems that barnacle such a project are of a baroque complexity that will leave you winded. As necessary exorcism I wrote a book about it. Over the years I had learned not to voice my worries, tiring eventually of Dan’s mantra: ‘Well, you bought it.’ Yes, I bought it.)
But that cold, grey day, leaning against the gale on that bare escarpment I was so pleased to see his eyes deglaze, signs of life suffuse the grey pallor of his face, and to hear him talk again that I dismissed my doubts.
We were on the point of signing things and handing over money, when Dan had a chance conversation with Giorgio who by coincidence had had the same piece of land on his books for a while - for rather less than half what we were being invited to pay by the log man. The price hike was not what decided Dan against the site, it was the fact - which Pepe had omitted to tell us - that it was illegal to build less than 20 metres from the boundary, which would have meant cantilevering a winkle-like building above the 500 foot drop. Even Dan had to admit that this was bad feng shui.
I disguised my relief in a busy fuss about organizing a holiday in Italy. Since moving to Spain we had not had a holiday – we had yet to walk insouciantly away from our responsibilities, abandon the dogs to friends, and leave our troubles behind. This is what we decided to do on the spur of the moment that May: a week in a converted chapel in Le Marche, another in a flat in Tuscany, flight tickets sorted, and a secret appointment with an estate agent that I hoped to pass off as chauffeured sight seeing.
Italy had begun to edge out Spain in my affections, mainly due to Angelo Cicalini. I had met him when I was the garden editor for Country Living, at an exhibition of Italian gardens organized by the Italian tourist board in the Savoy Hotel. Grand events where everyone knows everyone else always reduce me to panicky gibbering, and this one was graced by the garden glitterati in full braying mode. So I lurked inconspicuously in a corner planning my escape and hoping to avoid notice by the loud and the double-barrelled.
My plan was foiled - when the speeches began my exit was blocked by a short, spherical man, almost entirely bald, but with impressive broom-like whiskers, who looked as out of place as I felt.
‘Do you have a book? playing cards? Sudoku?’ He whispered in a strong Italian accent, as the formidable pewter-haired Contessa in charge began a litany of gratitude that looked set to take all afternoon.
‘Italians always have to make the speech. This will be worse than High Mass with the Pope. This is the benediction. Then we have a sermon, then confession, then she will take your money. They always take your money. Come, we start a revolution.’ And grabbing my hand, he tiptoed theatrically out of the ballroom, and burst, guffawing, out into the watery sunshine on the embankment.
‘I cannot stand Italian speeches – for such a leetle event, it is worse than the Oscars – they have to thank everybody. Come with me. There is a café here, with proper coffee.’ Feeling like a naughty truant, I drank several powerful cappuccinos, getting a ticking off with each one for being naff (wrong time of day for cappuccino), and listened to Angelo’s story.
‘I have no business at this press do. I am food, not gardens. But I come for the olive oil – it is the best. Taggiasche olives. From Liguria. Very low acid.’ He brandished his estate-bottled freebie, which had come with a cute pair of olive wood salad servers.
A clever boy, plainly always interested in food, he was born, third child in a farming family in the South. Desperate to escape from the poverty and narrowness of their lives, he had apprenticed himself at the age of fourteen to a local chef and worked his way, learning as he went, to become a well-respected chef and then a restaurant critic.
I’m always drawn to misfits, and found his tragicomic brio irresistible.
His wife had run off with a footballer many years previously:
‘She kidnap Maria Christina, our daughter. I can be friends with her now, she is grown up, but for years I could not find her. I lost her as a child. This break my heart.’
The experience had made him very cautious with relationships.
He was cautious too about returning home.
‘Italy is like a lovely woman (pron. gooman) who becomes a drug addict. I love her, but she destroys herself with the politics, with the scandal, with the corruption.’
However Angelo’s natural ebullience would not be thwarted - try as he might to be negative, he could not help but rhapsodise about the country he had abandoned, and indulge in lyrical descriptions of the South where his family continued to farm. Walking the two miles to school with his brother and sister (I think he claimed to be barefoot for extra romance but I may be wrong) harvesting olives and oranges and vegetables at dawn before the heat became too intense, occasional family picnics with his sixteen cousins by the sea – he described an almost unbelievably different world. His mother had never traveled further than three kilometres from the village of her birth.
He came to visit us in Spain for a weekend that winter, and we explored the
prawn and sherry dives of Malaga, weaving out to the docks to admire the huge liners and the sunset over the sea.
‘I make a confession.’ He whispered conspiratorially as he lurched on a low wall by the water’s edge.
‘I sell my apartment last month. Now I buy a place in Tuscany. Firenze. She call me. With fear and joy in my heart, I go.’ There should have been an orchestra, so tremulous and ecstatic was this little oratorio of his, culminating with hands clasped in the prayer position. I snorted.
Following his visit, without really intending to, I sat down and read all those books about upping sticks and moving to Tuscany or Umbria, Venice or Liguria. Descriptions of medieval festivals and village feasts, marriages, gardens, vineyards and allotments, mushroom hunts and archery, palaces and damp stone cantinas became dream default. Scores of paintings with optional virgins sprang to mind, backgrounds depicting distant blue hills, sunlit valleys, lovingly tilled soil.
Spain began to suffer in this increasingly manic Compare and Contrast.
What were the Spaniards doing during the renaissance when the Italians were changing the course of art history, I wanted to know? Indignantly I asked myself, what did the Spaniards do with all the booty they plundered in South America apart from dress up larger than life size Holy Virgin Barbie dolls, decorating their graven images in gold and diamonds, and tear down the graceful and ingenious legacy of the Moors to replace it with a new dark age? What towering, influential painters and playwrights, sculptors or architects, chefs or designers emerged from this parched land of religious mania and enthusiastic torture? What was the point of learning the subjunctive when the most gripping conversation to be had locally consisted of agreement that there had been a lot of rain?
Dan humoured me in my Italian infatuation.
‘Our home is in Spain’, he said kindly, ‘but we can always go to Italy for holidays.’
There you go, one exclusive for you and it is just as entertaining as Miranda's other books.
So how could I resist, not having a giveaway to go with such an exclusive. I have another copy of Getting to Manana, which has been gently used and I am happy to give it away in a competition. If you are interested in the review of the book, you will find the review here.
If you would like to win one of my copies of Getting to Manana all you have to is the following.
For 1 entry - leave a comment.
For 2 entries - become a new follower.
For 3 entries - that is for people who are already followers. So if you are already one of my 97 followers,you get 3 entries!
The competition closes Saturday 23rd August at midnight GMT. The competition is an international one. I will announce the winner on Sunday 24th August during my Sunday Salon post.