My grandmother was a pioneer of holidays in Spain. In the early 60s she went there for one week every year with her sister Eva and her brother Alfie, never my grandfather. Occasionally Alfie’s Brighton friends Jack and Rafe would join the party. Jack and Rafe were hairdressers; they had taught Alfie a few tricks of the trade that he liked to try out on his sisters. He would dye their hair jet black and perm it in preparation for the Spanish holidays. My mother and I went to Alfie’s on the hairdressing days, as he liked to have an assistant. I would play in the back yard while my Nana and Aunty Eva were in the kitchen laughing and joking and smoking, with Alfie dousing their heads with chemicals and my mother trying in vain to tidy up the mess. The house was a small Victorian terraced place that had not changed much since my great grandmother lived there. I remember small dark rooms crowded with furniture and heavily curtained. But the kitchen was in an extension at the back, and full of light. When I came in from playing I would sit in the sun-warmed room with all the chaos of the perming around me and the strong smell of perming solution in my nostrils. I was later to be subjected to the torture of the home perm and its unpredictable results myself, so that smell is as reminiscent of childhood to me as the madeleines were for Proust.
In Spain Nana, Eva and Alfie would sit in the sun all day, occasionally going for a paddle to cool off, and in the evenings they drank and caroused till the early hours. They did not visit the Alhambra or the Sagrada Familia, but we would usually get a postcard with a bullfighter or flamenco dancer embroidered on it in brightly coloured silks and a few words scrawled on the back: ‘Very hot here, having a lovely time. Love and kisses Nana’. Nana had to write her sister’s cards for her too because Eva had never learnt to read and write. When Nana came back I would get a present – a flamenco dancer doll one year, an earthy-smelling leather bag the next, and best of all, my Spanish blouse.
The blouse was white with puff sleeves and neck gathered by red ribbons. Dancers in costumes from different regions of Spain were embroidered across the front. When I first got the blouse it was a bit big, so I kept it in a drawer and occasionally took it out to look at the dancers and imagine the foreign climes they inhabited.
None of my friends’ nanas went to Spain, or to the pub on their own, but for me all of this was just a normal part of being a nana. She was not the Mary Berry kind of grandmother who cooked delicious meals for the family and baked cakes. Her only culinary speciality was rock cakes that she could make very quickly by throwing the ingredients into a basin, whizzing them round with a wooden spoon and slapping blobs of the mixture on to a baking tray. They were not bad at all if you could get them fresh, before they had been in the tin for too long.
Nana liked to smoke, and drink and get dressed up, and was always looking forward to the next holiday or day out. The first time I went to France, in 1968, I took the Spanish blouse, and perhaps something of Nana’s adventurous spirit.
Audio version of ‘The Spanish Blouse’ read by voice artist Tanya Rich; www.tanyarich.co.uk