The mad bell ringer who changed my life

LAST UPDATED: 4 Apr, 2009 @ 13:55
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In a competition earlier this year In the Write Light called for all Chris Stewarts. Along came Debora Garber who won the top prize with her dispatch on the people’s independent republic of Triana, in Sevilla. Here, the Olive Press runs it for the first time

By Debora Garner

PEOPLE used to walk round with T-shirts proclaiming the neighbourhood an Independent Republic. They were the hoi-polloi blessed with a peculiar common mindset and felt themselves to be superior to inhabitants of other parts of Seville.

This was before the 1950’s gypsy domain and the Triana still retains that veneer of glamorous shabbiness with its narrow streets housing pottery and basketwork outlets where you can watch the artisans in action.

Many of the streets are still cobbled and a statue of Juan Belmonte, the matador, and the tiny Virgen del Carmen chapel flank the Bridge which separates the barrio from the city.

It’s all very picturesque andaluz with its flower-filled patios de vecinos, Moorish tiling and the intense aroma of fried fish from the landmark watering-hole El Quiosco las Flores.

The gypsies have been gradually ousted to the south side of the city, occupying an enclave known as the Tres Mil Viviendas, or three thousand dwellings. It was a sad exodus to a kind of no-man’s land of high rise and low life, where they made whatever life they could, bringing donkeys up the tenement steps and lighting bonfires on the wastelands to party around.

The toothless, heroin-ravaged teenage sons of ex-Triana residents went on to form illegal parking attendant cooperatives around the hospitals and the football stadium, while their mothers sold carnations and read the palms of unsuspecting guiris on the Cathedral steps.

Back in tinkly Triana, the stamping and clapping from flamenco academies vied with the desolate, droning dirge of off-key blasts from the brass bands that rehearsed all year round on the quay under the bridge.

Tittering Japanese girls scurried around to dancing class, men watched football from televisions, their behinds sprawled on chairs placed backwards on tiny terraces. Women swept their patios and threw bleach over the pavement, while heady smells of puchero and horse dung hung in the clammy summer air.

It was only in Semana Santa, the Easter Holy Week, that orange-blossom perfume briefly masked all the other signature scents of my block. That was when the brass band got to get down while getting off on the annual amble behind the Virgin de la Esperanza – heroine of Triana – during her yearly outing dressed in full regalia aboard a swaying throne perched on the shoulders of weeping costaleros.

The well-known spectacle of the pointy-hat brigade of penitents accompanying the procession had terrified me on an early childhood holiday and it still gave me the willies to have to pass them on my way home.

I had arrived in Seville in May of 1989 and by the end of the taxi ride to Triana I was totally seduced by the vibe. The mauve jacaranda flowers that swayed around the old tobacco factory (where Bizet’s Carmen did the night shift), the Art Deco splendour of the pavilions built for the 1929 Exposición Iberoamericana, the glitter of the Guadalquivir river, the palm trees and the mélange of sheer magnificence and wanton decadence. It made me dizzy and ecstatic.

When I moved to the flat over the panel beaters yard, across the way from the Chinese restaurant where no Caucasian had ever set foot, I became, unwittingly, the intimate confidante of my portly neighbour Reyes. I had only been there a couple of years but had become fond of Triana and its quirky inhabitants. By then I had decided on a plan of action, intending to compile a notebook. I would select from the characters I met during the time I lived there and write about those who best personified the fact that this neighbourhood, Seville’s Rive Gauche as I like to call it, is more a state of mind than an actual geographical point.

Hence the T-shirt. Republica Independiente. It was an undeniable fact that Triana residents had a different thought process. Their unique modus vivendi, socio-religious obsessive tendencies, widespread closet homosexuality and distinct set of mishegass conferred apparently by their very status as trianero/a are recurrent themes in my musings. Well, there were enough nutters in my street alone to fill John of Gods.

Poor Reyes had a voice like a lighthouse siren. Built like a battleship, she lived below me, with her husband who had spent the last 25 years in his pyjamas, agog at the television with a bottle of wine, only emerging from the sitting-room to dress up as a nun during the February carnival period when the extended family would come round for a knees-up.

His penchant for cross-dressing made him a prime suspect in the disappearance of some of my favourite underwear from the washing line.

There were also three daughters of which two were obviously lesbians. I know that because the youngest of them had appeared in ABC, the Seville newspaper, in connection with a recruitment campaign on the part of the Armed Forces.

They could never look me in the eye when I visited, but I put it down to their embarrassment over their pristine white belly-warmer knickers having to vie for space on the line with my assorted array in red and black.

That unfortunate woman Reyes spent her life enslaved by that family and was never to be caught doing anything that wasn’t for their well-being. She traipsed daily from one supermarket to the other to save a few pesetas on any product reduced or on special offer.

She’d be hanging out 20 white towels daily on the line (two showers a day per person x two towels – one for body, one for hair – makes 20) and cooking six or seven dishes a day so there’d always be what they fancied in the fridge when they got home.

The man at the Paraiso de la Carne, our local butcher, used to practically genuflect when Reyes came in for her jarrete or her asaúras. Really I should have written to the Pope to propose her as a living saint and urge him to have her beatified. Even he would have agreed that as a role model for the wayward wives of today, she was unparalleled.

One day, I collected and folded her daily laundry and brought it downstairs from the rooftop terrace as it looked like rain and she got such a shock that she said she had come over faint and had to sit down panting. Later I realised it was because no-one had ever done anything for her in her whole life and thenceforth I was to curse the day I had dreamt of such an action.

From then on she would come up at all times of the day and night, ringing my bell incessantly till I got to the stage where I’d park three streets down and tiptoe round my flat so she’d think I was out. On the many occasions I had no option but to entertain her at my pad, she would pull down my curtains to re-hem them or take over the ironing and go off on a long monologue about how she wouldn’t be seen dead on the hubby’s arm unless she really was nearly dead.

He had been unfaithful to her early in their marriage and this had caused such shame to her – I suspected it might have been with a man – that she had vowed he’d never again lay a finger on her as long as they lived. So that’s why she slept in the living-room, I concluded.

The bell-ringing intensified during the World Cup, the Olympics, Roland-Garros, the Giro or any other televised sporting event that blasted in hysterical unison from every television in the street. She would waffle on about the three-piece suite she’d seen at Merkamueble, the dead ducks on the Chinese people’s patio and her psychotic eldest daughter’s imminent graduation as a Doctor of Medicine specialising in AIDS research while she made me inspect her varicose veins, bunions or caesarean scar.

It got so bad I tried disconnecting the doorbell cable with a tweezers though several times that led to my being ostensibly stood-up by my date who had spent half an hour ringing on it. That was before the days of the mobile phone, of course. I took to never wearing shoes at home or listening to music. My piano was silent for nigh on a year. I would grab the phone just as it rang and have frantic whispered conversations. Then I’d bump into her on the stairway as she lugged up a bombona or a dozen bags of shopping and be sequestered back into my living room for a chat.

Time and again I would explain why I wasn’t married, though I had a boyfriend, why I was able to mix with gypsies or feed stray animals and not fear for my life, why I didn’t eat pork and why that included pig’s ears and why I would go down at midnight to feed the cats in the street risking my health and safety by going within a mile of anything with four legs.

Enrique once obtusely lodged a complaint about my squeaky bed when I first started using it for sex in that flat, though Reyes denied hearing it since she slept in the other room. Rather than have a quiet word in my ear he opted for the subtler approach by shouting “Viva er Betis” at the appropriate moment. He got his come-uppance when my toilet overflowed into his bedroom due to a defect in the drain.

Infuriating me with her overwhelming kindness, Reyes or the Mad Bell Ringer as I took to calling her, would often leave plates of pig’s ears, sausage stews and tripe at my door – a huge source of embarrassment when I arrived home with a man in tow. She painstakingly taught me the secrets of Andalusian cuisine, what offal goes into what stews and how to slice a calamar, how to hang out washing in the professional manner so that the armpits were dry before the body of the garment, as well as how to prune plants or rather keep them alive in forty-two degrees.

Every Sunday she would ring the bell and leave a selection of videotapes of the Triana Brotherhood’s annual pilgrimage to El Rocío. The family – lifelong club members – filmed the whole shebang every year, starting with the fireworks, continuing with the Brotherhood’s schlep from Triana all the way down the Huelva motorway, lots of them barefoot with huge medallions swinging from their necks. The soundtrack seemed to always be the same drums, flutes, guitars, sevillanas and more sevillanas with lots of very drunk people singing out of tune.

Enrique had a yearly moment of post-Spring lucidity to prepare, stock and oversee the departure of the family wagon, destined for the Huelva marshes near Doñana, seat of the Virgen del Rocio’s hideout in a small hamlet. Come late May, the stairwell was always stacked with crates of beer, great big jars of olive oil (five litre special offer from Cobreros supermarket), a multitude of hams and chorizos along with literally enough produce to feed an army.

For those not in the know, the Virgen del Rocio is a dolly dressed up as Mary which was, as legend would have it, found by a medieval woodcutter and thought to have miraculous powers. She was the cause of a blood battle for her custody between several villages. She sits in her finery in the chapel of a ghost town, the venue for the congregation of over a million people who fight for the right to lift her up on her throne and rock her above the heads of the masses, crying hysterically at her beauty and splendour.

Some walk, others crawl, ride horses, drive tractors or travel in wagons festooned with frills and flowers. For days on end the convoy negotiates rivers, pine forests and motorways to get there. Drunkenness is de rigeur and homosexual encounters in the woods are rife. It’s a mecca of the masses but even the rich and famous rent houses there for the week of celebrations. The place is left under kilos of garbage, gallons of piss and is not cleaned up until just before the following year’s shenanigans start.

So the Mad Bell Ringer only ever ventured away from the neighbourhood once a year for that week along with most of the other neighbours, including the panel-beater. I spent the few days in peace, a pilgrim myself in a temporary ashram of second-floor serenity.

Eventually, the Virgin came up with the goods and answered all Reyes’ pleas. I suppose it’s like a collective cosmic ordering service. You take on the ordeal of getting close to Her, have as loud as possible a word in her ear, totally convinced of her power and she’ll deliver. Her daughter got her degree, Enrique got his overdue redundancy dosh and she herself got a new washing machine – all within the space of seven years!

Reyes was devastated when, saved by another doorbell and a better view, I decided to move. Enrique was forced to bring her to El Rocio on the double. This mid-winter visit to the Virgin was intended to ensure that whoever her neighbour-to-be was to be wouldn’t be gay, Basque or the Chinese restaurant owner’s expanding network of relatives who had already materialised in droves in our street.

A year or so after I left Seville, I heard she’d bought the Chinese restaurant premises, having saved a fortune on so many two-for-the-price-of-one fabric-conditioners and reduced-to-clear bottles of wine, with a view to converting it into a clinic for her daughter to run. This became Seville’s first AIDS clinic.

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