Tuesday, July 20, 2010


(I choose to post the story of these events as I wrote it, even though it is followed up by a second teaching, at the end: having sent it to my friend Michael to check the facts against his memory, I received from him the corrections that I append. The lens of memory tends to distort, and I’m interested in those things I mis-remembered over time, as well as those I seem to have remembered rightly.)

My old friend Michael wrote to me just the other day from Barcelona, in response to one of my entries in The Buddha Diaries. I have known Michael since the 1940s, when he would come to stay with my family in England during the school holidays; and when his parents, whose family had lived for many years in Spain and who owned a long-established family business there, invited me over to spend a summer vacation. Like my own parents, they have now passed on, and it was my essay on the death of two loved ones that prompted a poignant response from my friend. I remember his parents as warm and generous people, as sunny as the climate in which they lived.

After hearing from Michael, I woke in the middle of the night and lay for a long time, sleepless, my mind engaged in memories of my two visits to their home. One story, in particular, has stayed with me all these years. It concerns a salesman, a Bentley, and a donkey cart…

Before I start, however, another searing memory came up, which makes me smile as I recall my twelve-year old self. Michael and I—and I think his brother, Christopher and a friend—were allowed, without adult company, to make the train journey from Victoria Station in London, where my parents saw us off, to Barcelona. It was a trip that involved a change of stations as well as a change of trains in Paris, and was therefore quite an adventure for a handful of young boys. But Michael was already an old hand, having done it many times before.

All went well until I woke up in the middle of the night on the Paris to Barcelona express with the urgent need to pee. I must have resisted for a while, as one does, hoping to postpone the necessity—a postponement that of course succeeded only in increasing the urgency. Finally, unable to wait a moment longer, I hurried from the compartment down the corridor to the WC… only to find it occupied. Interminably occupied!

I hung on—literally! You know how that is!—for as long as a small boy could, until I could wait no longer. I was bursting. In desperation, I stepped out into that concertina’ed junction they used to have between two carriages, as close as I dared to the thundering gap where I could see the rail bed rushing past below. Fearful lest some other passenger pass by and see me, I unbuttoned (yes, we had buttoned flies in those days…) and, at great risk to that tender part of my anatomy, poked my pecker toward the gap and let loose a flood of urine—some of which, to my infinite chagrin, failed to make it through and ended up on the violently jolting walls and floor. I fled back to my compartment in a fit of embarrassment and shame.

I have better memories of Barcelona, even though we stayed in the city no more than a couple of days. Heat, brilliant sunlight. The Ramblas. Steep hillsides. Shimmering tram tracks. The Guardia Civil, with machine gun nests on the streets, outside of banks, on top of street cars… This was 1948, not long since the end of the civil war.

Then we drove up to Caldetas, a small town just south of the Costa Brava, where Michael’s family had a summer home. I remember sunlight-flooded days, hot sand on the beach, and warm, salty water; and sultry evenings on the plaza under strings of lights, buying lengths of sweet-sticky churros and ice-cold, nutty horchatas de chufas to slake the thirst, and watching the circle dances to the haunting, plaintive music of sardanas To this small visitor, brought under drab, cloudy English skies, it was all unbelievably exotic, magical, intoxicating…

And I remember too the wrought iron grill of the gate that separated our house from the tree-lined alley on which it was situated; and, beyond the grill, the near-naked gypsy children, wide-eyed with penurious envy as they gaped through the fence at us, their faces and bodies streaked with grime. It was, I think, the first time I was brought into glaring, irrefutable confrontation with the evidence of my own privilege, and with the discomforting recognition of the deprivation of others.

And then, one day, there was the Bentley parked outside that gate. It was brand new, blue, as I remember, gleaming in luxurious splendor. The owner, as we soon discovered, was a visiting salesman who had business with Michael’s father—a brash, rude, ruddy, broad-waisted man, brimming with self-confidence and self-congratulation. I did not like him. We children—I think I can still speak for all of us—did not like him. But we were awed by the energy and power he projected, as well as by the wealth his Bentley represented. So we were quick to accept his offer, after lunch, of a ride in this splendid motor car.

He drove us up through the village into the hills behind, bowling through dusty, vine-bordered lanes at a rate of speed intended, clearly, to impress us. And we were impressed, no doubt. Until he came to a downhill stretch that led to a narrow bridge with, on the opposing hill, a farmer also approaching the same bridge on his hay-laden donkey cart, more slowly than ourselves, but just as surely…

It did not for one moment occur to our driver that that farmer would not stop at the other side and wait for him, so he drove blithely ahead and came to a halt, in the middle of the bridge, only when he realized that this was not to be the case. Indeed, the farmer seemed to barely notice the big and beautiful car that stood glittering in his path. We all sat breathless, incredulous, as the cart rumbled on slowly towards us, with exquisite inevitability, until its metal hub engaged the front wing of the Bentley with a dreadful screech. Even then, it did not stop. The farmer, unmoved, continued on his way as the hub gouged an unremitting, raucous path through the sheer steel of the Bentley’s metal siding, until it reached the rear end of the car and broke free.

For a moment—is this my imagination?—total silence, as though our driver were simply unable to register what had happened. Then he wrenched open the door, gaped at the damage to his vehicle, and let loose a stream of enraged invective in the direction of the departing farmer. To no avail. We watched, our little group of pale-skinned aliens in the dusty Spanish back hills, as the donkey cart creaked and rattled its way slowly up the hill whence we had come, and disappeared over the crest with never a pause or backward glance from its driver.

Well, I’m sure that Michael’s father must have been profuse in his apologies to this business associate. But I’m pretty sure, also, knowing his capacity for seeing all things in perspective and for enjoying a good laugh, that he must have had to work hard, as he did so, to suppress a secret smile of solidarity with the farmer—who was, after all, simply doing his own thing on his own turf, and whose values did not include a greater respect for a brand new Bentley than for his own ancient donkey cart. Both, to him, I suppose, were nothing more than a means of transportation, both subject to the inevitable wear and tear inflicted by an unkind world.

I learned a lot that day. I learned to take nothing for granted, when it comes to other cultures. I learned that rich people should not be allowed to rule the world, simply because they happen to be rich. I learned something weird and indefinable about inevitability. I learned something about arrogance—call it hubris—and our vulnerability to the vicissitudes of circumstance beyond our control. I learned about impermanence and the fallacy of attachment to material things…

Well, actually, I don’t suppose I learned all this on that particular day. But it’s fun to look back on the incident and realize just how much life can teach us in a single blow! My thanks to my friend Michael for having brought it all to mind. Here is the letter he wrote in response, with some correction to my memory, and some interesting additions. I have edited it slightly :

Peter...that is so good! Just a couple of comments for a small correction. The car was in fact a bullet-proof Rolls Royce. My father's business friend, Charles Rycroft, owned some rubber plantations in Malaya, which during its last years as part of the British Empire was at war with communist guerillas. Hence the order for this formidable Rolls Royce special in which CR drove around his plantations.

Spain was impoverished at the time but there was a Rolls Royce agent in Barcelona, and a mechanic with a very small repair shop. The car was taken there by my father and Charles Rycroft. Of course there were no spares for such a car, but the RR rep humbly offered to hammer out the badly dented and scratched doors, adding that it would take a day or two to do. And so it was. Later, on returning to England, the car was taken to Rolls Royce to have the whole job done properly. After careful inspection, the engineers there looked up at the incredulous Charles Rycroft and said that they themselves could not have done a better job. Their man in Barcelona had done the job to perfection, the car was as good as new, perfect craftsmanship. CR was astounded but accepted the verdict.

I seem to remember we saw more of him through those years. I must confess I do not remember taking a dislike to him - I was impressed though, and he was extraordinarily kind and generous to my father who only a year before had come out to start the family biz from nothing - all lost during the Civil war - and it was in great part thanks to CR he got the business going again, buying crepe rubber from CR for Spanish shoe-makers. Do you remember the soldiers here only wore slippers then!!

Great account of the train journey!!!

What memories---well, well remembered and well, well written!! Oh the machine gun posts… are you sure about that, or just gingering up the story? I’m doubtful myself! Otherwise flawless, a memorable account. Thank you so much!



A final note: The machine gun posts are a "clear memory," but I’m ready to believe that my mind invented them. It's possible they didn't exist! Otherwise, it’s clear that my memory has been unkind to the man Michael remembers as generous and kind, Charles Rycroft. He, too, as he appears in the story, is a construct of my imagination. The distortion is clearly the result of my prejudices, formed later in life, and has more to say about myself than about the man I write about… The border between fact and fiction is a porous one! And the teaching, finally, is that we remember things to suit our own particular agenda.

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