Were you to stage a play which required a composite, stereotypical version of a swarthy, scruffy Spanish rascal then my friend Pedro would walk straight into the part. This wise, be-whiskered, mocking, half-educated, dentally challenged campesino, is the real McCoy, complete with all the contradictions.
When you meet him it’s like shaking hands with the Thing from the Fantastic Four. Blue eyes set deep behind an inscrutable wall of wrinkles, his direct gaze seems to weigh you, and find you somehow light, or lacking. Put kindly, he has a pleasingly relaxed attitude to his attire and personal grooming; think of the antithesis of Metro-man. Yet he exudes a sense of independence, almost of aloofness. He is strong, canny, funny and also honest, up to a point. I suspect that as a young man he may have been handsome. There are dark rumours about his past.
When we first came to the village all those years ago I was drawn to this scary, complex character and we worked together on several building projects. That is, he worked and I observed and scurried around exhausted and tried to make myself useful in the role of apprentice, whilst he muttered under his breath about the uselessness of college boys in general and me in particular. In action he was a joy to watch, poised and elegant as he selected the perfect stone to jigsaw into the wall he was building. I also learned to swear horribly. It was often a fairly unmanning experience. Whenever I said or did something especially dim or naïve he had this habit of whistling softly inwards between the gaps in his teeth; on bad days it was like working next to an ever boiling kettle. In contrast, on the rare occasion I did something right he would give that gruff, grudging cough of approbation, and I would melt.
He’s as Spanish as could be, but has that Yorkshire trait of telling the truth as he sees it. One fine day, for example, he caught me standing with an English friend next to a drystone wall we had just spent three days rebuilding. Muscles sore, backs aching, fingernails broken in a manly kind of way, we are feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, chuffed at the scale of our achievement. “David !” shouts Pedro. “ who fixed up that wall?” “Me, actually” I say smugly. His reply is as withering as it is pertinent. “Claro,” he pronounces, “ It’s shit.” And with that goes on his way.
That section of wall, I confess, is no longer with us.
A few years ago he came with us to climb to the top of Mulhacen, for fun. In the 1950s he’d worked for a long time there as a shepherd and knew every gulley and crag, but though a hundred times he’d grazed his flock to within half an hour of the summit, he’d never before set foot there. Hadn’t he been a bit tempted, I wondered. Not at all. He wasn’t even defensive about his lack of curiosity, and at first I was mildly discomfited, it seemed so unambitious. For him it was just work, rural drudgery. It only came to me later that there isn’t really much difference between Pedro on the mountain and the London commuter who spends a lifetime on the Piccadilly line, but whose thirst for knowledge never takes him to the terminus, for the simple joy of discovering what Cockfosters or Uxbridge is really like.
The thing is, I trust and admire him, and can’t get enough of his wily, countryman’s fund of stories and practical advice. Over the years he’s shown me amongst other things how to kill a pigeon, where to find wild asparagus, truffles and French sorrel, how to make a herbal tincture to take away toothache, the scene of an atrocity after the Civil War, and an evil concoction which he claims will keep away wild boar. (Don’t ask: it’s mostly bits of other wild boar, toasted.)
It was Pedro who taught me – eventually – the correct way to prepare an alamo, or poplar , the tall, straight trees which are used as beams in all the buildings hereabouts. As soon as it is felled you need to peel away all the rough bark from the trunk, but crucially, leave a 30 cm collar of unpeeled bark at one end. The purpose of this eluded me at first. After two years of seasoning though, you soon see why, for the intact collar performs the function of a sacrificial zinc anode on an outboard motor, in that every bug, larvae or fungus makes its home there, leaving it soft and loofah like, whilst the rest of the peeled trunk is left hard and unblemished. The trick, of course, is to cut down the tree at the appropriate time of year, in fact under a waning moon in August. No one but the most ignorant fool would ever dream of doing otherwise. Pedro told me this after he and his friends had watched patiently as nonchalantly I took my new chain saw to such a tree in January. Could he not have stopped me beforehand, I wondered through gritted teeth. With a wicked grin, he shrugged. He has a magnificent shrug, that Pedro.
Wry. I think that’s the word. Once in his stables with a group of walkers someone asked innocently whether it was true they kept the animals beneath the household so their body heat will help warm the rooms above. Nope, says Pedro. “You ever tried getting a cow or a pig up the stairs?”