I noticed a chou chou plant near where we’re living had started to sprout from the root so I thought it might be advisable to acquire a fruit and send it homewards for planting in the polytunnel. I popped into the market and found one with two shoots just beginning, packaged it in a small box, parcelled the box up and took it to the post office. Cost so far, 1 euro for the fruit, 60 cents for the sellotape. I debated with M how much we were prepared to pay for postage and we agreed 5 euros was the limit.
I took the package to the counter and said it was for England. The brusque lady in charge pushed a few buttons on her keyboard and said what sounded to me like 2 euros 25 cents. I thought that was eminently reasonable and said ‘fine’. She checked once more that the price was okay and I confirmed it was. I dug in my pouch for three euros coins, pushed them across, and she shook her head sadly. She then repeated the amount she wanted, which turned out to be 12 euros 25 cents!
I laughed hollowly, scooped up my coins, and indicated she should give me the parcel back. No chou chou could be worth a grand total of close to 14 euros. At that point, I lost her. She seemed to want to explain some personal piece of history that obviously cut her to the quick and bore repeating, again and again, pretty much word for word. I nodded sagely, wondering why she was still holding onto the parcel. She got more and more excited, swinging her arms back and forth, indicating the price on the screen, and then, in an act of desperation, she gave me a leaflet with the various tariffs on it. As I studied the prices, I realised sadly that my parcel, which had weighed in at 517 grammes, would have cost only 4 euros to send had I used slightly less dense packaging, allowing it to fall into the 200 grammes – 499 grammes price slot.
Meanwhile, it seemed M had finally grasped what the lady was saying. She was claiming that she had now committed her machine to accepting our parcel at this exorbitant price, and could not annul the sale. If we didn’t hand over the 12 euros 25 cents, she would have to pay it out of her own pocket.
As an honourable gentlemen, I felt I had little option but to slide over this ridiculous sum of money. In exchange, I got a specious of receipt, that guaranteed nothing, but saw no sign of any stamps appearing. I hung around, increasingly suspicious, as she took up one of those metallic devices used for imprinting names and addresses, made a few impressions on a blank sheet of paper, and then laboriously cut the most faded one of these out with a pair of scissors, and then stuck it on my parcel with what looked like surgical tape. Finally, she flung the parcel in a nearby basket, and looked to her next customer. We were dismissed.
Heading to our eventual destination a few kilometres distant, I informed my companion that whatever our topic of conversation, or during any periods of silence, whatever our thoughts dwelt on, neither of us was allowed to so much as contemplate this absurdly demoralising episode. Needless to say, I could think of nothing else, and I kept repeating, to myself and out aloud, that if only I had got the tariff sheet beforehand, I would have understood the monstrous and questionably legal strategy the post office had decided on concerning the different toll they exacted for parcels weighing less or more than 500 grammes; while M bemoaned how her inadequate grasp of Spanish had meant she had not cottoned on more quickly to the difference between ‘dos’ and ‘daos’ – or whatever twelve is in this incomprehensible lingo.
However, all was not lost. Before we had traipsed more than a kilometre, M found a glittering stash of coinage on the dusty road that precisely lowered the cost of sending this chou chou to exactly 4 euros. Amazingly, we then stopped thinking about our poor fortune and started admiring the almond blossom instead.
A Spanish friend from our previous visit here came round the other afternoon with her two children. We gave them something to drink and M prepared a small dish with some almonds and dried figs for them to eat. The younger of the two was about Orlando’s age and very calm. He played on the rooftop with a couple of nylon hoops that had come as stiffeners with a shower hat and a stick, bowling the hoops around with quiet concentration. The older, aged seven, started out very studiously, arranging and rearranging some geometric puzzles M had made.
Intermittently, they reached out and ate a fig or almond. At some point, I noticed one of the marzipan logs we had brought back from England. Thinking they might enjoy a bite of something different, I sliced off a few morsels and put them in the bowl with the fruit and nuts. The younger boy tried one but spat it out; the older got stuck in and soon polished them off.
By then, he had found M’s skipping rope and was trying it out on the roof terrace. We all demonstrated our prowess and he got fairly excited trying to do five skips in a row. Then he started going slightly wild, attaching one end of the rope to the washing line and swinging it about violently, cackling as he did so, while leaping manically, before falling over backwards. The more often he fell, the more excited he got. His mother tried to restrain him, but he shrugged her off. He began leaping about like some sort of dervish, banging into the walls.
At one point, he launched himself into the air, and almost sailed over the modest parapet that kept people from toppling off the roof terrace onto the ground below. This seemed to ignite his passions even more. I started getting worried; I might end the day trying to explain his death to the authorities. Encircling him in my arms and herding him indoors was like trying to contain a torrent. He easily slipped my grasp and started prising water and gas pipes off the wall. Leaping away as I approached, he ran to the parapet and hopped along it. I grabbed him and bundled him inside.
Eventually, they left, and we considered what could have turned him from a reasonable being of some studiousness into a raving lunatic in a matter of minutes. Smoothing out the wrapping from the marzipan log, all was revealed. It contained a trivial percentage of almonds, an abundance of sugar and sundry other highly enervating additives.
The Pee-pee Teepee
Whatever will they think of next? Surely a wee (excuse the pun) strip of muslin would do the trick!