It is quite unusual for me to be rendered speechless especially in a professional context, but recently I was lost for words in a group class at the Very Big Bank. It was a low level group, and we were running a quiz in two teams. They had played the text book quiz, guessing the answers from clues like ‘American black and white comic actor, initials CC, Actress who defeats the Alien in the original Ridley Scott film, initials SW, Famous female nurse and health care reformer who started her career during the Crimean war, initials FN, and so on. Now the two teams were writing their own questions to challenge each other. As I circulated, helping with grammar and checking the questions over students’ shoulders, I came to Miguel. My heart sank as I read over his shoulder ‘Best political leader Spain has ever had, from the last century, FF.’ Oh Christ, surely not….. Miguel had been known to make some fairly outrageous remarks in class, for example, when the present King was mentioned once, he launched into an excited rant about how how King Juan Carlos is a traitor and should be dragged through Traitor’s Gate (at least he checked for the correct vocabulary). Zapatero’s name could not be mentioned in class without Miguel leaping to defame his character as ‘that socialist weasel’ whose name he could not even bring himself to pronounce, calling him only ZP. He also claimed once that it was a jolly sensible idea to screen immigrants to Spain by deciding approximately how many English teachers are needed and only letting that many in, and any other nationalities surplus to requirements should be turned back at the borders. You get my drift. I make him sound like a monster; there’s the dichotomy you see, he is in fact a kind, sweet-natured, fussily polite old man who dotes on his daughter and was very happy to give me a proud tour of his office just after I first started teaching him, fondly talking me through his family photographs and the history of the bank building.
So it was with a heavy heart I turned a little later to Miguel for his next question to challenge the other team in the quiz. They got the answer right, of course, most of them looking a little sheepish, and Miguel exclaimed triumphantly ‘Yesssss!’ Teacher replied quietly but firmly, ‘Well, that is a matter of opinion, Miguel, it’s not entirely impartial as a question, is it-‘ but he wasn’t listening and instead leapt out of his seat to give a hearty fascist salute and declare ‘Franco, Franco, Franco!’ while hopping gleefully from one foot to the other like a manic Rumpelstiltskin. It was at this point I lost the power of speech for perhaps two or three seconds. It’s not the fact that people still hold these views that surprises me, least of all in the Very Big Bank, which is a creaking old State Institution as conservative as they come. It’s the sight of someone performing the straight-armed salute at me without any shame, and in an English class that shocked me. To me it’s a filthy and abhorrent gesture, like the swastika it has become visual pollution, something to shudder at and shy away from. But what came next prolonged the lack of speech by several seconds more.
‘Ah yes, Generalisimo Franco Franco, the greatest political leader of the last century!’ he declared happily. ‘In fact, one of the best political leaders in Europe- him and Winston Churchill: without argument the two greatest men of the 20th Century.’
I must have turned a little pale, as his colleagues then started exclaiming ‘Give it a rest, Miguel, sit down-‘ ‘Come on, man, not this again-‘. Yes, of course, Franco and Churchill, like two peas in a pod. Except I don’t remember Churchill massacring all the poets, homosexuals, Leftists, gypsies, artists, bohemians, and activists….. or overthrowing a democratically-elected government…. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that the Spanish teach in schools that Sir Francis Drake was a British pirate while we laud him as a national hero. That makes sense to me in some kind of way, history can be subjective, but Franco and Church….. no……
Franco-adoration takes me back to the heady 80s- after all I arrived in Madrid and lived here for the first time a mere decade after his death. There was a day (the anniversary of Franco’s death, or his birthday, I never remember: an excuse for all his fans to crawl out of the woodwork anyway, when I emerged from Sol metro station into the middle of a Francoist demonstration, to find myself surrounded by fur-coated, hard-faced matrons, stern-backed upper middle classes and Dock Martin’ed skinheads marching, marching, marching relentlessly across the plaza and performing the dreaded salute en masse. I turned on my heel and scuttled back into the metro, the only thing missing the whites of my eyes and a flashing white bobtail. I felt sick; I was shocked. But it turns out there are (or hopefully there were, I prefer the past tense here) plenty of people who would like to have Franco back, given half the chance.
One of these was my old landlady Dolores. I rented a room from her for approximately two months while I was a student back in ’88 or ’89. I don’t remember the circumstances but I do remember I needed a room, and fast, so when I found this one – rented from a little old lady, I took it like a shot, choosing to ignore the crucifix nailed above my narrow monastic bed, the fact that my new landlady told me all about how she’d got rid of the last girl for being a ‘slut’, and even more worrying, the sheer volume of Poperabilia dotted around the house. There were Pope plates on the walls, Pope placemats (in the drawer), Pope thimbles, spoons, mugs, candles…. it was creepy but at the same time delightfully kitsch. Pure Almodovar. But the Pope had competition. Dolores had two men in her life. The other one was Franco.
She was a sweet old duck, always decked out in her wine red housecoat, her gnarled arthritic hands working away in front of her as she knitted, cooked, cleaned, reminding me of a wizened squirrel. She showed me how to make paella once, an experience that traumatised me (a pseudo-vegetarian) so badly that I have never since made it. In went the prawns, in went the chicken, in went the rabbit- the entire carcass slapped onto the chopping board, it’s jelly-ish eyes staring up at me, startled, its skinned, shiny red head a reproach, then thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! She chopped it into six or seven pieces and the dismembered body parts were tipped into the paella. Along with the head. I obsessed about that head the entire time it took for the paella to cook, right up until dinner time that night when I knew in my heart of hearts it would end up on my plate. Which of course, it did.
My time staying with Dolores was a short and quite frankly bizarre period of my life. A sublime example of how dangerous it is to tell lies, because, as the Italian saying goes, lies have legs. And they nearly trotted back to haunt me, although the option of telling the truth didn’t look so appealing either. Let me explain. Dolores, as I said, had thrown the last lodger out for being a ‘slut’. She confided in me how this girl had brought boys back to the flat, she’d seen them kissing goodbye at the door! She hadn’t even brought them inside. It seems so long ago and so unlikely, but at that time it was perfectly normal for no men to be allowed even over the threshold in all all-girl flat. Even a group of girls renting a flat was pretty unthinkable- young women, living alone? Not married or living with parents? Outrageous! So it became harder and harder to explain to my landlady why an older man was calling me constantly from the Uk. How did she know this? Mind your own business, you might think. But Dolores had the precious house phone locked in her bedroom, all calls were screened by her, then permission granted to take the call in her room. Once, taking a call, I sat in the edge of the unmade bed and discovered to my horror that there was a large crucifix tangled in the bedsheets, meaning only one thing- that she actually slept with it. When I say large I don’t mean full-size, she didn’t exactly strap herself onto it after lights out, but it was at least the length of my arm. I had a much older boyfriend at the time who’d stayed in the Uk, and after the first couple of times he’d called, Dolores had come through to the living room one evening to tell me there was another call for me from ‘that man’, her mouth sharpening and disappearing like a knife turned sideways, and I don’t know what came over me, but I said ingenuously, ‘Oh yes, that’ll be Dad.’
After that, receiving calls was certainly not a problem. I explained how my parents were divorced, (a truth) and that my father called me two or three times a week (an absolute lie, we were currently virtually estranged). On the odd occasion my mother called she got a frostier reception than my ‘father’ from Dolores. ‘Terrible,’ she’d tutt and shake her head when I came off the phone. ‘Your father calls you every few days and you speak for such a long time. Your mother? When does she bother to call? Once a week? Poor girl…. I can see what happened in that divorce….’
As if this wasn’t enough deception, the soup of lies thickened and bubbled with the announcement of an upcoming visit from ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’. My mother and my partner were friends, and had decided to come and visit me together. Oh joy! How the effing hell was I supposed to explain that to my landlady? With another fat whopping lie, of course. Mummy and Daddy may have divorced but it was pretty amicable, and for my sake they sometimes still came on holiday together, and that’s what they were doing. Dolores insisted they came for tea. There was no way out of it. I won’t go into details, but there was a farcical tea party with my mother. Lover and I almost wetting ourselves laughing, while Dolores very sweetly brought out cakes and coffees, lavishing attention on my wonderful father and almost but not quite blanking my mother. The rest of the stay was spent creeping guiltily out of the neighbourhood to the safety of his city centre hostal, slapping his hand away if he tried to hold mine in the vicinity of the flat, and cowering in terror if he tried to kiss me anywhere there was even a remote possibility that Dolores, or one of her spies, would see me. The thought of that happening was a total passion killer, it didn’t bear thinking about.
I got away with it though; Dolores never found out that I was a slut, and probably a worse one than the girl before. We left on good terms- As I said, she was a sweet old lady in many respects, kind and good-natured. Before I left and found less restrictive living arrangements, I remember vividly a conversation we had a propos of nothing one day. Like sweet, kind, fussily polite Miguel, she was the proud owner of some pretty scary opinions.
‘Franco….’ she told me wistfully ‘in Franco’s time Madrid was a safe place to live. There wasn’t any crime, delinquency, there were no drugs, there wasn’t any AIDS, there was no prostitution, no immigration, no unemplyment. Spain was a safe country. Not any more. Look at all these problems the Socialists have brought with them! We never had them before, not in Franco’s time. Spain would be much better off if Franco was still alive.’ I was only just older than twenty, yet even I could have told her these are not problems the Socialists have brought with them, they are inherent problems of modern living. Welcome to the 20th Century. And even then I understood somehow the nostalgia that must inevitably come with the passing of a paternal dictator and the ushering in of a strange, dangerous new era. Dolores never exactly jumped out of her seat to perform the fascist salute, but she was behind him all the way, that much was clear. Dolores and Miguel, separated by twenty years but not by political beliefs. I expected it back then, behind net curtains, just ten years after his death, but today? Halfway through our English class? That I wasn’t expecting.