Sunday, 6 July 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Valentina

The Best Bloody Woman I Know!

"Can I help you with that?" I asked.
The elderly woman looked up from her crouched position over the battered crate. It was full of the most succulent looking cherries and they shone bright reds and purples in the hot midday sun.

"Certainly you can, if you tell me how you knew I spoke English?" she replied, straightening out her aged back in a gradual, cautious movement. She regarded me over the top of her spectacles with a kind of humorous suspicion.

"Ah, well I heard you saying something to yourself outside the shop," I said, picking up the crate.

She hesitated, looking me straight in the eye then opening the back of her little van.

"I like to make preserves," she said, "I was trying to remind myself of what else I had to buy. We do that us old folk you know... talk to ourselves?"

"Oh I do too and I'm only twenty," I assured her. "I write songs and stories so I tell them out loud to myself when I'm walking in the country. I get some funny looks sometimes."

"So what's your name then?" she asked, scrutinising me carefully from head to foot.

"Mark. Very nice to meet you. I'm walking from Paris to Barcelona. I should have been there a month ago but I get sidetracked easily. I've been trying to get to Carcassonne for the past week but to be honest it's been so hot I've had to give up by lunchtime most days. "

The beautiful walled city of Carcassonne, in SW France

"University?" she asked.

"Art college," I replied, apologetically.

"Nothing wrong with art college," she replied. "I was at St Martins. Taught there twenty years."

I gulped. Now I would have to explain why I had taken a year out, I thought. Fortunately, however, she changed the subject.

"And where are you going to stay in Barcelona, might I ask?"

"I'm not sure yet. I'll try to get a job I suppose."

"Get in," she said, sighing. "You'll have to move Percy. He's inclined to growl at strangers but he won't bite. English people call me Val, by the way. Not Valerie! I'd rather be called Gertrude than bloody Valerie. Yes, my idiotic father insisted on christening me Valentina."

Fortunately Percy the ageing Border Terrier took a liking to me and sat happily at my feet. Val drove appallingly, with her hairy double chin resting on the steering wheel. Her cardigan was buttoned up all wrong. She also, I observed, seemed to have little idea of what gears were for, a volley of swearwords accompanying every crunching inappropriate change. Eventually we arrived at a large set of rusting gates with tall stone pillars to either side, looking like they would soon topple over.

"They're not locked," she said, gesturing me to get out. "Pull them behind you when I've gone through and walk up to the house. Go on you get out too Percy you lazy bugger!"

The house, as she called it, was more of a small chateau – but a very derelict one. There were floorboards missing and buckets everywhere in the grand hallway to catch rainwater that regularly leaked from the once spectacular roof and through the ornate ceilings. Books lay piled everywhere. Cats miaowed. Percy grunted at one then strolled over and lay on his bed, keeping one eye open and fixed hard upon me. I placed the cherries on a stone worktop by the sinks once I had cleared a space. Rummaging in drawers and cupboards, Val uncorked a bottle of wine and poured two enormous glasses that half emptied the bottle.

"So was your father Italian then Val?" I asked. "I mean you know,  naming you Valentina..."

"No no dear, he was a Frenchman. He'd been in love with a singer named Valentina and she'd left him when his money ran out. He was one of those impoverished counts, you know the type – a compulsive bloody gambler with a penchant for tarts. Married my decidedly plain and sensible mother on the orders of his elderly aunt, on the understanding that she would to pay off his debts. She left him this monstrous bloody house. He said because she had a soft spot for him, but I'd say more likely to spite him!"

"Is he still alive?" I asked, knowing he was unlikely to be but hoping to flatter her regarding her own years.

"I'd say not! Shot himself stone dead in Monte Carlo after a night on the tables, the bloody fool. Mother never got over it. If it's possible to die of a broken heart then I think she did. God knows why though, he treated her abominably. Now Barcelona... drink up I've got a cellar full of this rubbish. So where was I? Ah yes, Barcelona. I have an old gentleman friend. Friend of the family. Bobbie. He's queer though he doesn't think anyone knows it. Everyone knows of course. Don't worry, he won't bother you, he has a dicky heart and a wooden leg. Ex-ambassador, long retired. Big house up an even bigger bloody hill. He loves visitors though. I'll send him a letter and you'll be able to stay as long as you like. Big on boats. Makes models, usual boyish nonsense. Once sailed the Atlantic single handed and came back minus a leg the old fool. Not even a bloody war wound!"

I did of course offer to cook something for Valentina but she wouldn't allow it. She didn't have much of an appetite, she said, but people in the village always dropped her something by. Personally I thought that unlikely, yet sure enough a young village girl turned up at some point in the early evening with a large pot of rabbit stew and a tarte tatain. The cream in her fridge was green but she still ate it. I stayed for three or four days, helping her to sort out her garden and doing jobs around the house, before the urge to move on got the better of me.

It was nearly a month later before I rocked up at Bobbie's house in Sarria, a genteel suburb to the north side of Barcelona. I was eternally grateful to Valentina for introducing me. Bobbie was a charming host and lived well. As a result I lived well too. One evening after the weather had begun to turn cold, Bobbie asked me to light a fire in the library and he poured us a large cognac each.

Sarria, Barcelona. House in the background was Bobbie's.

"By the way you never said how you came to know Valentina, Bobbie?" I said.

"Val? Ah well I suppose I first met her in London when I was at The Home Office," he smiled. "We'd both have been in our mid-twenties then. Friend of my sister's. I asked her to marry me the same week but she said she wasn't the marrying kind. Asked her every year since for the last sixty one years. Answer's always the same."

"Didn't you ever think about marrying anyone else?" I enquired, cautiously.

"What marry someone else? Impossible! Best damned woman I know. Impossible. She'll change her mind one day, you mark my words, young Marcus. Oh yes she'll come round, you mark my words."

Bobbie really did seem sure Valentina would come round, but at eighty two it seemed unlikely to me.

"I tell you what, d'you know that woman saved an entire village – several villages really? There was a factory down the valley that made chairs. Exquisite chairs actually. You're sitting in one."

I looked at the old chair in which I was so comfortable settled. It really was an exquisite chair, Bobbie was right.

"Well the men of her village struggled when that factory closed y'see, trying to eke out a living farming and what have you, but it was no good. The younger men began to move away to the city. Valentina felt for those villagers and used to ask them to make her things, for herself or to give to her friends – hence your chair there young man. Well one day she decided she needed a particular kind of armoire – a cabinet of a rather beautiful style. So she drew it – fabulous artist is Val, fabulous – she drew it and a chap in the village made it for her. It was beautiful. Anyhow one of Val's aunts, I think it was, came to visit and loved that armoire so much she wanted one to ship back to her house in Chelsea, and in no time the carpenter had orders for half a dozen from the aunt's friends. Pretty soon he'd set up a workshop and got in help, and so it grew. She saved three villages did Val. Half the well-to-do ladies that lunch in London have one of those cabinets y'know. Worth a bloody packet now of course. And she wanted nothing out of it, even though she's been living on two-pence-ha'penny a week for years. Best damned bloody woman I know, Val!"

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.