Jules crunches the 7 seater into gear, and the smell of burning accelerator wafts into the Spanish night air as we jolt further up the winding mountain road and towards our holiday destination. A layer of perspiration covers our bodies, and even the 4 kids in the back have gone eerily quiet, looking up from iphones and ipads, sensing the perilous nature of this last leg of our journey.
It’s August, and Jules and I are taking our 4 boys on holiday to my friend’s parents’ Spanish townhouse in a very un-touristy and remote village half way up a mountain in Valencia. The 90 minute drive from Alicante airport had gone relatively smoothly - or as smoothly as it can with 3 teens and a car sick 11 year old in the back – jollity had ensued as we followed the monotone directions courtesy of Google maps, and we even laughed about getting lost when 4G evaded us, leaving us to the mercy of my very broken Spanish when asking a local policia for directions as he tried to corral fiesta goers away from closed off roads and the barriers we were trying to negotiate in the car.
And then we reach the mountain.
A shadowy mass of vertiginous, hairpin bends, steep drops, deep ditches, and a lack of anything to stop us off rolling off the side and crashing to our deaths confronted us – and, at almost midnight, this 45 minute feat of motoring dexterity and skill, was to be completed in pitch darkness, with only the car headlights - lighting up the treetops as opposed to the road due to the steep angle of the ascent - to guide us. I briefly consider nibbling on half a Valium (prescribed for my flying anxiety), but then realise I’ll need to be on the ball to call 111 and explain our predicament in my Spanglish, in case we do end up perilously dangling off the edge. Luckily for the teens in the back, we don’t have any cable ties or packing tape on hand to strap one to the roof to light our way with their iphone flashlight, which, by all accounts, would have proved more useful than the waning gibbous moon above us.
However, after another crunch of gears and heart-stopping 360 degree vertical twist in the road, we all un-grip sweaty fingers from seats and breathe a sigh of relief as the lights of the village finally come into view ahead of us. One more wrong turn necessitates reversing up a steep, narrow one-way street, until finally we park up and release four gangly, excitable boys to scramble out of doors, over luggage and out through the boot, leaving Jules and I to take a deep breath and start dragging the bags into the hall of Casa Piedra.
“Is the handbrake on tightly? Have you left it in gear?” I ask, noting the angle the car is parked on the narrow, cobbled street.
“Yes, the bloody handbrake is on, but I think we’ve said goodbye to the clutch,’ Jules replies, not looking up from pulling a bottle of duty free gin out her backpack.
Inside Casa Piedra, we all lay claim to our rooms. I bagsy the cool, spacious, ground level bedroom 2 floors away from boys and their noise, with it’s own en-suite bathroom - because I am a princess and I need quiet and dark and a very precise room temperature to sleep. I inform Jules - pseudo martyr that I am - that I am prepared to take this room, which, being quite isolated from the rest of the house, is the first a random burglar or kidnapper would go in, as I know she is a little afraid of the dark and strange houses. Jules fixes me with a disbelieving stare and inwardly rolls her eyes, but she’s too tired to argue so drags her luggage up the 2 flights of stairs and into the rather hot double bedroom over-looking the almond factory. I bounce up after her and remark on how lucky she is to have a ceiling fan as I don’t have a ceiling fan in my lovely, cool, private en-suite room away from the 4 boys uproariously jumping on beds, racing around the house and playing loud music via their portable iphone speakers.
I decide it best not to draw attention to the fact she is also sharing a bathroom with them all. She’s very stoic about those things though is Jules, and anyway, she snores like a coffee percolator when drunk, so I make a mental note to keep her half-cut throughout the week and I’m sure she won’t notice the noise and smells…
Arising bright and early to the sound of the almond factory machinery starting up, Jules
and I hurriedly force-feed the boys with croissants and strange Spanish cereal before swiftly gathering our things and setting off for the village swimming pool, a mere 5 minute walk from the house. Marching through the beautiful and quaint mountain village, admiring the views, we call, ‘hola!’ to all who pass us.
“You know it’s ‘ola’ don’t you? You don’t pronounce the ‘h,’ Purbeck,” Jules whispers as another couple of villagers stare at the party of six, marching along the same street we’ve been up and down twice now, as actually, yes, we are lost again.
“I’m not pronouncing the ‘h,’ I’m pronouncing it in an authentic Spanish accent," I reply testily.
The three teens who have studied Spanish GCSE give me a look of utter incredulity, but decide to their better judgment to keep quiet.
Finally, we reach the village swimming pool and are greeted by twenty-something Señorita; the self-styled gatekeeper and snack hut owner, who does not hide her disdain at being interrupted from glaring into space in order to sell us some entry tickets. A portly lifeguard looks up from eating his breakfast burrito as we drag sunbeds under cover of shade and get about the serious business of relaxing.
“I can’t get data on my phone here either,” panics Jules – because the serious business of relaxing cannot be undertaken without a 4G signal.
“I’ve got 4G, I’m fine,” I reply, helpfully, as I snap photos to post on Facebook before asking Jules’ 16 year old son to take photos of me in my bikini. Jules looks at me aghast, and then at her son who has taken on the mission with relish.
“What? Well, I didn’t ask you as you’re busy trying to get a data signal!’
“Ok, I think she has enough bikini shots now, thanks. Go and get a drink from the snack hut.” The 16 year old hands back my phone.
“He takes great shots! I look quite good from that angle,” I exclaim, excitedly waving my phone in Jules’ face.
Inwardly, Jules rolls her eyes again, before striding off to ask the Señorita for the wifi password.
As the day goes on, it becomes apparent that the snack hut is somewhat lacking the vital ingredient from which it takes its purpose; snacks.
“I thought the Señorita said there were no Magnums left? Those people have just got some.”
“She said, 'no','when i asked for tostados, but I saw a loaf of bread behind her.” “Now she’s saying there is only fizzy water left…”
“She pretends not to understand us. The man over there told me she speaks Spanish, French and English, but it doesn’t matter what I ask for, she says, ‘no.’”
“She keeps turning the bloody wifi off as well, I swear!” laments Jules. “She hates us.”
Jules and I glare over at the stroppy Señorita in the shit shack – as we have now maturely nicknamed her. Knowing that the 3 teens with Spanish GCSE are perfectly capable of speaking and understanding basic conversational Spanish, I decide to take matters into my own hands and get out my phone. Looking up; ‘please can I have a cheese toasted sandwich,’ on Google translate, I find an unused but crumpled tissue in my bag and write down the phrase before handing it to the 4 hungry boys.
“Go and show her this. She can’t claim she doesn’t understand you if it is written down in plain Spanish.”
As the boys trundle off back to the shit shack; both a little afraid and a little excited at their mission handed to them on a damp, crumpled tissue, Jules and I watch with a mixture of trepidation and rising impending victory.
We see the 11 year old – still young enough to be cute, and hence less likely to get the full force of Stroppy’s wrath, rise on tiptoes to place the tissue in front of her as the 3 teens surround him. Time stands still and we all hold our breath as no one moves.
Then, there’s movement from the shit shack. The stroppy Señorita turns away and begins preparing tostados. The boys turn around and raise their arms in a victory wave to us just as Stroppy turns back to the boys to take their money. Jules and I slink down on our sunbeds, not wanting it to appear as if we have been the instigators of such petty behaviour.
“Ok, now look up; ‘please can you stop turning the wifi off when I’m quite obviously using it,’” Jules commands, whilst shuffling about in her bag for something to write on. “And then add, ‘what has happened in your young life to make you so twisted and bitter?’”
“I’m not sure we should do that with 6 days left of the holiday.”
“We’ll get little J to hand it to her. She can’t be that nasty to an 11 year old,” she replies and hands me a biro and wrapped panty liner to write on.