I Remember Lemons
I remember lemons in a fountain. I think they are my first memory. Three lemons, bright – so bright! – nestling together in the bottom of an old marble fountain beneath two feet of melt water, channelled down by subterranean ways from the distant shimmering Sierra Nevada. Three lemons cooling in the fountain, placed there by Concepción the cook; I could just see them when I stood on tiptoe, craning my head over the lip. At midday, when the hot Andalusian sun flattened the shadows and even Tito our rambunctious hound ceased his frenetic activity, then the lemons would radiate their fresh and joyful yellowness in electric lines of lively light along the inside of the marble bowl. Three bright lemons in a fountain in Seville are the symbol of my childhood.
Concepción was good to me. She was large and round and her skin was soft and smelt of apricots. When resting on the bench outside the kitchen door she allowed me to climb all over her, even to grab fistfuls of her curly southern hair. She was by all accounts a formidable cook. Half a century later my late mother still used to wax lyrical over her gazpacho, until senescence robbed her of even that memory. For me the greatest treat was her limonada, sweet and citric and thirst-quenching. Ah Concepción, to be pressed against your mountainous apricot breasts once more, with the clear Andalusian sky above me and lemons in the water below, to twine my hands in your hair like vine tendrils whilst Tito sleeps on the sunny dusty floor of the patio; that would be happiness.
By the time I was big enough to reach the bottom of the fountain Concepción had gone and there were no longer any bright lemons cooling there. Concepción had been impregnated and therefore had to leave; my father explained this to me in his study on one of his monthly visits. He was a busy man, my father. The owner of much land, both here and in the new world, and, as I discovered subsequently, the father of many children. My infantile ears, attuned to gossip from the servants’ quarters, soon picked up that it was Jesús the foreman who had impregnated Concepción.
Jesús the foreman, he towers in my memory like a colossus. Jesús, a man so tall and broad that his presence in the patio seemed to cast a shadow from corner to corner. His face was slashed and cicatrized from numerous encounters with the thieving gypsies. Once I had heard Concepción describing to Marta (my mother’s maid) how she had seen Jesús fight a brawl outside the taverna. I remember how she described the sight of Jesús’ knife flashing in the moonlight: she said it was like ‘a silver fish’.
Many cooks followed after Concepción. None were as accomplished as she had been, and thus they were quickly replaced; my mother refused to accept any cooking that was not first rate. In those days there was much labour in Andalusia, and little employment, and it was still considered quite something to work for one of the old families. One of the cooks that followed was Fernanda. I remember her clearly because her daughter was the first girl I ever loved. Her name was Estrella. She was thirteen, a year younger than I. It would be a betrayal to try and describe her beauty physically. To me, her beauty was the beauty of Andalusia. She was the clear sky of my childhood, the salty sweat of the dusty field and the lemon cooling in subterranean melt water, the passionate thrill of gypsy song and the deadly flash of the silver fish. There were few coordinates on the map of my emotions in those days, but those coordinates that did exist were as stark and clear as burnt pointed stakes driven into fresh snow, and Estrella contained them all.
I wooed her in the only way I knew. I galloped bareback into the patio on the wildest horse in our stable, letting him prance there awhile. I jumped off and led him to drink whilst I peeled off my shirt and washed in the same fountain, slicking back my hair in the manner of an American movie actor. At night I rode out alone into the gypsy country on my father’s white stallion whose coat shone a spectral blue by the light of a full moon. From the gypsies I bought charms and amulets which I gave to Fernanda to give to her daughter. I picked fights with local boys in the hope that Estrella might hear that I was afraid of no one. I even wrote poetry for her, poetry which was bad but heartfelt, which she could not read and I shall not repeat.
In those days the women used to sing the old songs when they brought lunch to the men in the fields. I accompanied the women, on horseback of course. It was the sweetest pleasure I have known; Estrella’s voice was the clearest and the purest of them all, and since she had no man in the fields I fondly imagined that she was singing for me.
One day my mother summoned me to her darkened study and informed me that she was no longer happy with Fernanda’s cooking and that Fernanda would be leaving our employ. I felt a flash of terror and argued and shouted and railed with tears of desperation in my eyes. My mother was surprised by the strength of my reaction and eventually capitulated. I was exhausted and consequently slept so heavily that night that I did not hear Estrella’s weeping when Jesus’ ox cart came to fetch her and Fernanda at dawn to take them to the port. I never saw Estrella again, and I never forgave my mother for her treachery.
They said I couldn’t afford to maintain the old finca, which is true. So they took it away and gave me a small, pink, air-conditioned apartment in a large block five minutes away by auto vehicle. The finca is now a restaurant and seems very highly thought of. I have never been because it is so expensive. They say it is owned by two corpulent German men and that the King of Saudi Arabia often eats there when he is in Marbella. He flies in by helicopter and lands where the fountain used to stand, in the middle of the patio. They replaced the fountain with a big ‘H’. I wonder whether they make gazpacho as well as Concepción used to. Or limonada, for that matter. I doubt it. I think her secret was putting the lemons in the fountain to cool them. The lemons were happy there.