Mam was a Spanish lady, big and bold, and wherever she went, we three kids and a sewing machine went with her. Dad was a Derbyshire miner, thin as a whippet, with a twinkly eye and a wit as dry as dustpan of clinker. He wasn’t our real dad, of course. He died in Spain, long before we came to Britain.
Well, Mam was a proper Spaniard from Aragon, the driest and harshest place in Spain, and our real dad was a Basque miner from Vizcaya, hardworking, proud and political. When the uprising came in Asturias in 1934, there he was on the front line, wielding a banner. First time, they flung him into jail. Second time, they shot him. And that’s all I know about my real father.
Now, the Aragonese are a proud lot too, maybe that’s where the word “arrogant” comes from, and Mam wasn’t one to sit around being the grieving widow, so she set herself up as village dressmaker, trouser repairer and general patcher-upper of clothes for those too tired or busy to do it themselves. She got hold of a second-hand sewing machine in a wooden case, cobbled on a set of old pram wheels, and trundled it round to wherever it was needed. Then she’d sit outside in the sun where the light was better, and rattle away on the sewing machine like a thing possessed.
Then the War came. Not the War you’re all thinking about, the one before that. The one in Spain. And the Basque country, loyal to the Socialist Republic but staunchly Catholic, was right smack in the front line. The Nationalists, who were mainly fascists, by the way, bombed the coastal towns, then they bombed the inland towns. Then they bombed Guernica. They destroyed the iron and steel-works, blockaded the ports and once they’d finished bombing us to bits, started starving us into submission. Apart from the lack of food and the fact that the house was falling down, Mam knew as soon as the fascists over-ran the Basque country, people like us, Marxists, socialists or revolutionaries of any kind would be rounded up and shot in a ditch somewhere. So, she bundled what she could into an old trunk, rolled up our bedding and slung it on our backs and trundled off with three kids and a sewing machine towards the coast.
By the time we got to Bilbao, the quayside was teaming with refugees. The fascists were more concerned now with grabbing Madrid and Valencia than finishing off the Basques. So we waited on the quayside for a Welsh boat to come in. The Welsh were good to us Basques during the Civil War, and their merchant ships brought us food and took away families who had nowhere else to go.
To cut a long story short, Mam and my big sister Maria and my brother Roberto found ourselves in a tenement near the Cardiff docks, scraping a living from Mam’s sewing until the day she met Dad. Dad was a miner, like our real dad, quite political, and he’d come down to Cardiff for a rally. He was a widower with four children of his own to bring up, or he’d have been off to Spain fighting for folks like us. Dad was a real character and the kindest man I’ve ever met. It makes me sad to think of kiddies today not knowing who their father is, and people saying step-parents are never the same, because our English dad was wonderful to us. Dad was very soft about kids, and he was lonely, too. Anyroad, he and Mam got married in the registry office and instead of four children to feed, he now had seven.
I’ll always remember the day he first got us all together. We all crowded into the tiny parlour barely big enough to swing a cat, and Dad said, in his broad accent, impossible to imitate, but I’ll try,
“Right, this is your new Mam. Now, thee’s mine and they’s hers, but now you’re all our’n, and I don’t want any moaning or complaining or squabbling, ‘cos now we’re all one family, right? So we look out for each other, no fighting, no favouritism, alright? Now, you can all go out and play. Right, Mam?” Or words to that effect.
“Okay, boyo,” said Mam. And that was that.
So we did. No moaning or complaining. No fighting or squabbling. Well, not much, anyway. Roberto became Bobby, Maria became May and I, Conchita, became Connie. And now we had Ivy, Betty, Jimmy and Sam as well. With so many of us crammed into a small terraced house, getting on was what we just had to do. And Mam and us kids became part of the community. Well, pit villages are pit villages, wherever they are and we’d only come, a long, painful way round, from one to another. Mam’s warm heart and big laugh soon won them over. And her sewing skills were always welcome. If anyone could resurrect a dress or a shirt or a pair of work trousers from a tattered rag, Mam could. And her standard greeting of “Olá, duck,” became known around the village. The men, however, tended to hold her slightly in awe, since Mam was, as Dad put it, a big lass, and carried herself with that special dignity most Spaniards have. Imposing, I think is the word. Tongue in cheek, they used to refer to her as The Señora. Dad had another name, though. She was a stickler for discipline, was Mam, and as soon as she came home from a shopping expedition or one of her women’s meetings at the Institute, Dad would hasten to warn us kids, playing out late again,
“Quick, inside, you kids – The Armada’s on its way!”
And Mam would come steaming down the street, breathing fire.
Now, Mam and Dad were keen on one thing, and that was education. They hadn’t had much themselves, and they didn’t want us going out into the world ignorant. Dad loved music and opera and reading. Working class people then wanted to be educated. It wasn’t that they were ashamed of what they were, but they wanted to better themselves. After the war, when the Labour government came in, Mam and Dad were overjoyed.
“Never be ashamed, paquita,” Mam said once, “that your Dad was a miner – working class hero with heart big as football pitch, not saying your first dad wasn’t hero too, bless his stupid Trotskyite heart. Never be ashamed to say you’re Spanish because we are proud, brave and cultured people! Maybe you’re English now, but Spanish too, remember.”
Dad told us that even after losing their own war, 70,000 Spaniards fought for the Allies and about 20,000 died in German prison camps, not counting all those who died helping Allied airmen out of occupied Europe. And Mam said,
“And see, look you, who was driving those first tanks into Occupied Paris. They were Spaniards, paquita. Never forget that.” Years later, I saw those old news photos and read what was written on those tanks, and realised what Mam said was true. There was Garbo, too, the double agent from Barcelona, The Spy Who Saved D-Day – but it was a long time after that I learned about him. And Mam’s brother who died fighting with the Maquis. But the fascists still held power in Spain, and the sad story of the Spaniards who supported the Allies simply slipped between the floorboards of history.
Still, in September 1939, nobody knew what would happen next. Mam had gone through one war already, but like everyone else, she was resigned. By 1940, my eldest sisters, Ivy, Betty and May, were old enough to go out to work, and ended up on night shifts in a munitions factory. After five years hardly seeing daylight, poor May lost her olive Spanish complexion, but we all survived. Dad down the pit, Sam in the army, and Mam taking on an allotment, which she cultivated with great zeal. Her muscles became impressive. Her English had come on a lot, though still spattered with Spanish, Derbyshire dialect, fragments of Basque and a few choice bits of Welsh, but she got by. Me and Jimmy, the youngest, were still at school.
One day, while Mam was forking manure among her precious vegetables, she heard a plane coming closer. It was making a horrible noise. Then she saw some parachutes coming down. Not knowing whether it was one of Ours or one of Theirs, she kept a close eye on the descending aircrew, who came down in a nearby field. She could hear them shouting to one another, and whatever it was they were shouting in certainly wasn’t English.
Wielding her fork, still viscous with manure courtesy of the milkman’s horse, Mam headed on over. By this time, the airmen had disentangled themselves from their parachutes and scrambled to their feet looking disorientated.
“Hey you, boyos,” said Mam, “Alemanos?”
“Alemanos? You? “
“Scotch-men, Irelandés, what?”
“Well, what you, then?”
“Ha!” Mam lowered her manure fork. “Español!”
Then she pointed to the parachutes and said “Gracias!”
By the time her brave Polish boyos had been ushered on their way with hugs and kisses, replenished with good Spanish soup, the parachute silk was safely stashed under the bed.
As 1945 rolled round, and Jimmy was waiting for his call-up papers, Dad had an accident at the pit. He was laid up for weeks, and Mam nursed him devotedly.
“When this is all over, lass,” he said, “I promise I’ll give thee anything tha wants. – Within reason,” he added hastily, in case Mam asked for a tiara or a holiday in Barcelona.
“What I really like, boyo,” said Mam, dreamy-eyed, “Is great big all-white church wedding.”
In view of the fact that Mam was an unabashed Bolshevik, who kept a small statue of the Virgin on the mantel-piece just in case, this was a trifle unexpected, but Dad took it like a man.
“Oh blimey o’reilly,” he said.
Dad was not a church-going man, and his family had been chapel rather than church, but he did his best.
“Do I have to wear a penguin-suit, then?” he asked.
The vicar was duly summoned, and had only two problems – One, Mam and Dad were married already, and Two, Mam was very probably a Roman Catholic.
Mam drew herself up to her full height.
“Católico? No! Soy marxista!”
He took one look at Mam’s biceps and agreed to do it anyway.
Naturally, Mam being Mam, she insisted on making bridesmaids dresses for all us girls. There wasn’t much around to make them with in the autumn of 1945, so we did what we always did – we made things do. And I have to say, thanks to Mam, we all looked fabulous. But she left her own dress till last, which perhaps was not a good idea.
“Off, off to the iglesia! Go!” she hissed through a mouthful of pins, as we dithered about waiting. We went.
And so it was, on a fine September day in 1945, Dad was already at the altar, and we girls and Sam and Jimmy and the vicar and everyone else were waiting with sweating palms as the organ kept on playing, finally, the church door creaked open. And there was Mam on Roberto’s arm, with a mantilla of Nottingham lace and a spray of orange blossom attached to her big Spanish comb, majestic in many yards of parachute silk.
And Dad murmured out of the side of his mouth, ending with a great big smile,
“Watch out all you kids, best behaviour now, The Armada’s on its way!”
NB This story may be found in my book GONDWANALAND (Circaidy Gregory Press 2013) and is also available as an ebook.