‘Second helpings’ continues Geoff Sadler’s hilarious exploits of those lovable Brits, John and Anne Hammond, as they flounder their way through the vicissitudes of Spanish life among the ex-pats on the sun-drenched Costas.
Meet again your old friends Ian Walker-Smythe and his intractable hound, the vivacious Susy Frost, and that most dubious of odd-job men, Crafty Charlie Bates. Add a wily entrepreneur, the delectable Monique, a squad of slap-happy Russians and a riotous Middle East cruise, and the mixture will be sure to please. As Anne says ‘Isn’t everything absolutely lovely!’
ALL WAS QUIET in the Hammond homestead. I had taken early retirement from my office job several years before. ‘We’re sorry to lose you, Hammond,’ my boss had mumbled. ‘You added that essential unpredictability factor to our lives.’
I chose to regard this as a compliment, and for a while, Anne and I had contemplated the purchase of a budgerigar or having tattoos. Then we answered an advertisement in the local freebee and ended up with a cottage in Southern Spain instead. We have enjoyed an idyllic lifestyle in the mountains above the sun-drenched Costas ever since. Anne has taken up painting again, and is meeting with great acclaim, particularly in Weston-super-Mare and the more remote parts of New Zealand. I have finally mastered the old laptop our daughter, Dawn, kindly gave me, and can now easily achieve a word-a-minute on a good day. ‘Perhaps you’d get along faster,’ Dawn had snapped, ‘if you used both hands and the mouse.’
It was a wonderful morning in the height of summer; the sort of day when one’s inclinations turn to a long chair on the patio with a glass of ice-cold wine and some interesting tapas. I was doing the washing up.
I groaned. Our Spanish friends, Conchita and Juan, had come to dinner the previous evening, and it had somehow developed into a bit of a rave-up. There was a multitude of stuff to deal with. Anne and I had bunged most of the debris into the dishwasher, but the wretched thing had conked out again.
The telephone rang stridently, but before I could answer it, Anne had come bouncing out of her studio and grabbed it. ‘That’ll be Susy Frost,’ she trilled. ‘She said she would ring this morning.’
‘What about?’ I asked, but my better half had already settled down to one of her interminable conversations. I went back to my dishes.
Three and a quarter hours later Anne put down the receiver. ‘That was Susy Frost,’ she informed me brightly.
I was a touch miffed. ‘Well I never,’ I said. ‘Was it really? Discovered where her Great-Aunt went to school, have you? Is her Australian Uncle Bruce still in prison?’
My dear wife ignored my witticisms. ‘She wants us to go to this fashion whatsit next week.’
‘What fashion whatsit?’
‘I told you a month ago. Jess Winter is opening a new boutique and is starting off with a wonderful, wonderful fashion parade.’
‘Gosh,’ I marvelled. ‘Where on earth did she find gorgeous models in this neck of the woods?’
‘Well,’ Anne said happily. ‘There’s Jess herself. And Susy Frost. And Ruby Walker-Smythe, of course--
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I thought Jess Winter looked after old Ma Ridley.’
‘She did, but Mrs Ridley became ill and went into a lovely, lovely nursing home near Benidorm to recuperate.’
‘Lovely,’ I said.
‘Not really. The first time she was allowed out, her wheelchair had a puncture down by the fish market.’
‘She was stranded there for five and a quarter hours and picked up four parking tickets and a large fine for barking like a dog and biting a policeman.’
‘And then Jess Winter broke her leg falling upstairs.’
‘Surely you mean downstairs?’
‘No, upstairs. She was going to bed.’
‘Ah,’ I said.
‘So she’s opening this lovely, lovely boutique thingie.’
Jess Winter wasn’t my favourite flavour of the year. She was a vegetarian and directly responsible for Anne cooking four tons of spinach three times a week. I nodded gravely; us Hammonds are not ones to laugh at the misfortunes of others.
‘Ah,’ I said again, still somewhat mystified. ‘What’s the shop called?’
‘That’s a drug on the market.’
Anne waggled her fingers at me; they were smothered in bright-yellow paint. ‘There’ll be a lovely bar serving tea and homemade scones.’
‘Don’t tell me,’ I said. ‘Ruby Walker-Smythe’s making ’em.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And Ian’s manning the stall.’
I was impressed. ‘I’m surprised he agreed,’ I said.
‘He doesn’t know yet,’ Anne said. ‘And a troupe of gypsy flamenco dancers are coming down from Barcelona.’
‘I thought flamenco dancers came from Andalucía.’
‘So did I.’
‘Well then,’ I said, but my interest was aroused. Visions of flowing locks and sultry dark eyes came to mind. ‘Will they have flowing locks and sultry dark eyes?’ I asked.
‘I expect so,’ Anne said. ‘Have we any string? And some drawing pin thingies?’
‘Second drawer down,’ I said. ‘Where we keep the mousetraps.’
‘You get them,’ Anne said. ‘My hands are covered in yellow paint.’
I fished out a tangle of tatty string tied round an odd-shaped, wooden peg. ‘D’you know what that’s called?’ Anne asked.
‘A frayed knot,’ I said; I was on good form this morning. I undid a mile or so of string and found an ancient box of drawing pins. ’Why d’you want ’em, anyway?’
‘To draw ovals,’ she said. ‘You stick two pins a bit apart and loop the string round them.’
I nodded. ‘And plonk your pencil in the loop. Like scribing flowerbeds.’
‘Yes, she said. ‘Though I’m drawing balloons.’
‘It’s my new series of paintings for the London exhibition,’ she said. ‘This one’s three dozen yellow balloons floating over Birmingham Town Hall.’
‘Super,’ I said. ‘Do you know what Birmingham Town Hall looks like?’
‘More or less. I found that grotty postcard Vikki sent us from Uni.’
‘The one the mice nibbled in the postbox. What’s the picture called?’
‘I told you. “Three Dozen Yellow Balloons floating over Birmingham Town Hall.”’
I shoved the last of the dishes into the cupboard. ‘Can’t fail,’ I said. ‘I’d better ring round for a bloke to repair the dishwasher.’
‘I should leave it a bit if I were you,’ Anne said. ‘The phone’s covered in bright-yellow paint.’
‘NO, NO, NO!’ my friend Carlos cried, blowing his large nose on a red spotted handkerchief. ‘Never we comings to this fashion showings—’
‘There’ll be fifty thousand women there,’ I said gloomily. ‘I don’t want to be the only bloke.’
Carlos helped himself to another glass of wine. ‘We not comings,’ he said firmly.
I sighed. We were on the harbour next to the fish market; at a table outside our favourite bar. Seagulls swooped and screeched as María waddled out of the café with a huge platter of fried anchovies. She plonked it on the table and leered at me; gold teeth sparkled in the bright sunlight. I smiled weakly back; María terrified me.
‘There’ll be a stall selling tea and Mrs Walker-Smythe’s homemade scones,’ I told Carlos enticingly.
He shuddered and scooped up a few dozen boquerones.
‘No beer?’ he asked. ‘No wine?’
‘No,’ I said, and Carlos tossed his cigar butt into the harbour. ‘If Isabel coming to fashion showings she wantings many, many new dresses.’
I nodded. So would Anne. ‘There’s a troupe of gypsy flamenco dancers coming down from Barcelona.’
‘Flamenco dancers come from Andalucía—’
‘Well then,’ he said, hooking a wasp from his glass and taking a mighty slurp. ‘Are they havings flowing locks and dark, dark eyesies?’
‘I expect so,’ I said. ‘When we’ve eaten enough scones we can always toddle into the café next door.’
Carlos nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said after a while. ‘We comings. Perhaps I bringing clever, clever flamenco guitar-playing guy.’
I frowned. ‘Would that be your cousin Vicente?’
‘Of course not,’ Carlos said crossly. ‘He not havings guitar. Perhaps I bringing Angel and his children too.’
‘How many children?’
‘Five. Maybe six. I thinking they not ever tastings English scones—’
A FEW DAYS LATER I had skived off into the shade of our ancient olive tree on the rear patio. Cicadas chirped, bees buzzed and midges attempted to devour me whole. It was all very tranquil.
Felicity, the pure white cat who had kindly adopted us the year before, was fast asleep on my lap, together with an hilarious book on Anne’s new Kindle pad. It was by a local author about ex-pat Brits living in Spain and was called Tripe and Spanish Onions. I hadn’t stopped laughing since I had picked it up, and some day I intended reading it. I yawned and dropped off into a pleasant little siesta.
Suddenly the peace was shattered by forty thousand atom bombs erupting, followed by eighteen salvos of rocket grenades and a fusillade of machine guns. I jumped up and Felicity came to life with a screech and made a spectacular vertical take-off like a Harrier jet before streaking away up the rocky hillside.
I tore into the cottage; Anne was wearing my second-best gardening boots and stamping around the lounge waving her arms about like a demented octopus.
‘What’s up?’ I shouted above the din. ‘Saint Vitus Dance? Itching powder where it counts most? Shall I call the vet?’
Anne gave a last barrage on her castanets and laughed. ‘I’m practising my flamenco dancing.’
I stared at her. ‘You can’t do flamenco dancing.’
She tossed her curls at me and twenty-two tortoiseshell combs whizzed past my ears. ‘Of course I can,’ she snapped. ‘I borrowed a book from the library.’
My heart sank. ‘What happened to the dark-eyed gypsy maidens?’
‘They pulled out when they discovered we weren’t paying them. So Susy Frost, Ruby Walker-Smythe and I have to fill the gap.’
I was shattered. ‘You can’t mean it! Ruby’s four foot tall and at least eighty-five!’
‘She used to tap-dance when she was eighteen.’
‘Oh, Lor!’ I groaned. ‘I’ve arranged for a professional flamenco guitarist to come along.’
‘We don’t need one,’ Anne said, ‘Albert has kindly offered to bring his new CD thingie.’
‘The Reverend Albert Sprout.’
‘The Reverent Albert Sprout?’ I marvelled.
‘He’s our vicar.’
‘I didn’t know we had a vicar.’
‘Yes you did.’
‘Does he come from Brussels?’
‘I don’t think so. He’s going to be our DJ.’
I left her to it and opened a nice bottle of Rioja and a packet of chilli flavoured crisps. Then I returned to my shady nook under the olive tree. Well, I ask you.
I WAS MIXING US White Ladies to keep our strength up when Anne finally emerged; we were already a tad late for the opening. The dear girl had been in the bedroom since breakfast time, but the results were well worth it. She was decked out in a fantastic flamenco dancer’s outfit with oodles of colourful layers and a trillion fringes on its flounces. All her combs and hoop earrings were in place and a black lace shawl was guaranteed to keep out the cold. ‘Wow!,’ I cried. ‘You look gorgeous.’
I parked our ancient Ford in a side street behind the seafront and we walked through the plaza gardens to Jess Winter’s boutique. ‘I didn’t even know you had a flamenco dress,’ I said.
‘I didn’t,’ replied my amazing wife. ‘I bought it for ten euros at the Save-a-Cat charity shop.’
The plaza was already packed. All you could see were thirty thousand English ladies of a certain age with identical, tightly-permed, grey hair. The local hairdresser was probably laughing his euros away on his third world cruise. There were no other men in sight.
Anne picked up her skirts and tottered into the shop to freshen up. Susy Frost, Ruby Walker-Smythe and Jess Winter were already swaggering up and down a strip of crimson carpet; Susy’s red curls flying and Ruby almost invisible in several layers of dazzling drapery. Jess Winter was making an excellent job of it, though her bandaged head and plastered leg did spoil the effect somewhat.
The Reverend Sprout was a cherubic-looking character with a wispy, grey fringe framing his bright-red face. He was attempting to make his tiny cd player heard above the multitude of kisses and welcoming chatter. He was playing selections from Oklahoma!
Carlos and Isabel appeared and gave me a wave. I blinked; Angel and his tiny, black-clad wife had also turned up, together with fourteen children in assorted sizes. We all trooped over to where Ian Walker-Smythe lurked dejectedly behind a trestle table bearing piles of scones, teacups and a steaming urn. Despite the heat of the day, he was wearing his usual ginger-coloured tweed jacket with the leather buttons, and his Panama hat.
Carlos picked up a scone then replaced it carefully on the table. ‘It very hard,’ he said.
‘It’s harder where there’s none, old man,’ Ian told him. ‘Though you do need to mind your dentures somewhat. Ruby made ’em two weeks ago, y’know.’ He batted fourteen pairs of grubby hands away from his wares.
‘I thought you’d be wearing your lovely flamenco dress,’ I said to Isabel. ‘I rather fancied you when you wore it last Christmas.’
Isabel laughed shrilly. ‘Silly mans!’ she trilled, whacking me with her fan. ‘I giving it to Save-a-Pussy shop.’
‘How’s business?’ I asked Ian hastily. ’Sold lots of lovely tea, have we?’
Ian pursed his flabby lips. ‘Three cups so far,’ Hammond,’ he said. ‘And two old biddies said it was too weak.’
‘Really?’ I said.
‘I had to give ’em their money back.’
I filled a cup from his urn. ‘No wonder,’ I said. ‘This is just hot water. That’s how the Spanish make tea, Ian. Fill a cup with hot water and bung in a teabag.’
‘By Jove!’ he said. ‘That’s amazing. I’ve only ever made Earl Grey, y’see.’
I nodded. ‘One for each person and one for the pot.’
‘Aí!’ Carlos grabbed my arm. ‘Here coming my guitar-playing mans—’
‘Good Lor!’ I cried. ‘It’s Crafty Charlie!’
Pushing their way through the throngs of excited ladies were our dodgy odd-job man and Natasha. I was surprised to see Charlie; he had run away from his Russian wife the year before. Natasha’s red hair blazed above her minuscule green dress and she was staggering under the weight of Charlie’s guitar and sound equipment.
‘I say!’ Ian murmured approvingly. ‘Things are definitely looking up, ain’t they?’
‘Hey, Charlie!’ I called across. ‘I thought you’d hopped it to South America!’
Natasha sniffed. ‘He spendink all his money,’ she said. ‘So he comink back.’
‘She sez I gotta make good,’ Charlie said gloomily. ‘Earn lots’a dosh. Now ‘ow d’ya do that, guv?’ He went and set up his gear next to the Reverend Sprout and began playing as our three flamenco experts began their routine. Carlos and I looked at each other; Charlie Bates was amazingly good. He soon had everyone clapping and stamping their feet. The Reverend Albert decided enough was enough and slunk away.
Ian sauntered over and stood fingering his stubby moustache. ’Fine gal your Anne, Hammond,’ he said. ‘Dashed fine—’
I frowned. ‘Shouldn’t you be tea-wallahing?’ I asked.
He made a face. ‘No takers, old boy. And those wretched kids keep grabbing scones and lobbing ’em around like hand-grenades.’
Angel smiled cheerfully. ‘They havings much, much fun, no?’
Ian nodded. ‘You could say that. One hit that vicar blighter amid-ships. Knocked him down like a nine-pin.’
Isabel screeched. ‘Poor mans! I hoping he not hurt much bad—’
‘He’ll survive,’ I said. ‘Though he’ll undoubtedly remain a vegetable all his life.’
We all cheered as a dark man bounded up and joined in the dance. He wore skin-tight trousers, a white, frilly shirt and a tiny, black waistcoat. Soon we all realised he knew his flamenco; the clapping became more intense and cries of Olé! echoed around the plaza.
‘Gosh!’ I said. ‘Who’s the pro, then?’
Jess turned to me with shining eyes. ‘Isn’t he wonderful!’ she breathed. ‘His name’s Robbie Plummer. I met him at Susy Frost’s.’
‘Is he Spanish.’
‘No, he’s from Weston-super-Mare. Where Susy’s mum keeps a shop.’
‘He’s jolly agile,’ I said. ‘Does he eat lots of spinach?’
Jess giggled. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’
I HELPED ANNE to more sardines. ‘Wasn’t it great Crafty Charlie turning up,’ I said. ‘It made the day.’
Anne nodded dubiously. ‘I really wanted to dance to Oklahoma!’
I sighed and took another dozen sardines. Most of the gang were sharing a gigantic dish of paella that occupied most of the long, plank table. Jess Winter was wading her way through a large salad. She had been drinking steadily all the evening and was now hanging on her friend Robbie Plummer’s every word and giggling like a schoolgirl. Occasionally she pawed his arm and gave him a resounding kiss.
We were enjoying a late celebratory supper at Sammy’s Bar in the rocky bay the far side of the pinewoods. Stars twinkled overhead and an almost full moon hung low in the blue-black sky. Sammy, the huge Moroccan proprietor, leaned on his counter and listened openly to our conversation, the light from a single, overhead light bulb reflecting from his shaven head.
Natasha put on her little, oval spectacles and examined her paella carefully. ‘Vot ziss bone?’ she demanded loudly.
‘It’s rabbit, dear,’ said Ruby Walker-Smythe. ‘Very nutritious. Isn’t it, Ian?’
Ian thought about this for a while. ‘I suppose it is,’ he said at last. ‘Though not so much as squirrel.’
Isabel laughed. ‘Sí, sí. But both is especially tasty, tasty with juicy snails.’
‘When I was a lad,’ put in Robbie Plummer. ‘My gran baked hedgehog stuffed with snails for Sunday dinner. She called snails oddenidods.’
Natasha made a face. ‘I not likink rabbit in Spanish shops. Zey leavink zer heads on. Why zey doink ziss?’
‘Is simple!’ exclaimed Isabel. ‘Is so we are knowing is not cat—’
She broke off as the Reverend Sprout plodded his way across the stony beach towards us.
‘I say!’ he shouted as he drew near. ‘There you are, Robbie-boy. I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Come on home, laddie. It’s gone ten o’clock—’
Robbie sprang up and deposited a noisy kiss on Jess’s bandages. ‘Righty-oh, Bertie!’ he cried galloping off. ‘Nighty-night all!’
There was a stunned silence as we watched them disappear hand in hand, then Ruby nudged her husband in the ribs. ‘Well,’ she hissed. ‘It’s time someone said something. Isn’t it, Ian?’
Ian pushed back his Panama and considered the matter. ‘By Jove,’ he said. ‘I suppose it is.’ He raised his glass. ‘Here’s to Jess and Ecstasy. May her exciting new enterprise succeed beyond measure.’
Jess stared at him and then laughed. ‘Thanks, Ian,’ she giggled. ‘I discovered years ago you can’t win ’em all.’
Charlie sidled up to me as I pushed aside my seventeenth sardine. ‘Look ’ere, Mr H,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘You was in bankin’, wasn’t ya?’
I shook my head. ‘I worked for an insurance company.’
Charlie frowned. ‘Same difference, mate. Meetin’ all them there nobs an’ that.’
I plonked more garlic mayonnaise on my bread and took a swig of wine. ‘What are you on about, Charlie?’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Natasha fort as ’ow you might know someone, like. Some geezer oo’d give me a job.’
‘I tellink Charlie he needink verk in bankink,’ Natasha butted in. ‘Vere he gettink big, big bonus.’
We all laughed. ‘We’d all like that,’ I told them. ‘But it’s not as easy as it sounds.’
Charlie’s face dropped. ‘Then wot can a bloke do, guv?’ he asked.
I thought for a moment. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘There must be a niche somewhere for a guy who plays flamenco guitar like you—’
There was a sudden, sharp crack like a pistol shot, and the naked, electric light bulb overhead shattered. Shards of glass cascaded down into our supper, and shouts and cries filled the air. A plaintive voice continued in my ear; Crafty Charlie Bates was still there. ‘Wot can I do, Mr H?’
‘Dunno,’ I said into the darkness. ‘S’pose you could make a start by fixing our blooming dishwasher.’