“And for goodness sake - Behave!”
Mother pushed the newly quiffed hair off her newly powdered forehead, gave me a withering scowl and marched her jodhpured self down the wide, white steps of the Lima Country Club; off to the stables and the pleasure of an afternoon canter. She would be gone at least until teatime, and that meant a lot of behaving.
Jackie and I were sitting side by side on one of those big wide, white steps. We were both six, bored, and knew exactly where we wanted to be, and had every intention of going there. No-one knew that we ever went there - so although we both had a pretty good idea we would not be allowed to go there - we had never actually been told not to!
I can remember what I wore that day. A liberty cotton dress with tulips all over it - red and yellow with little green leaves, and there were knickers to match, with a little pocket for a handkerchief. The crowning glory was a never-to-be-forgotten sun-bonnet. It was pink, with a big bow under my chin, and a flounce at the back to protect my neck from getting burnt.. I hated it. I wanted to be a boy. The dress was inevitable in those days, but the bonnet was an insult. Jackie was American and wore snappy shorts and sneakers.
I was very envious. He was holding his latest aeroplane - by far his biggest and best. He made these planes out of odd bits of wood from the timber-yard, where a friendly clerk in the work-shop turned a blind eye to the concept of accidents and allowed Jackie to nail the bits together himself with a big black hammer. He only hammered his thumb once, and told his Mother I’d stepped on it! I was told to be more careful in future. This plane was his pride and joy. It even had a propeller.
We jumped to our feet as soon as Mother vanished from view and ran down the steps, through the beautiful gardens to the countryside. Off we ran, through the local village with its tiny higgelty-piggelty shacks. They were like little houses with no fronts to them. Some had colourful strips of home-woven blankets across the front, but most were open and you could see their clay cooking pots and their beds, with more of their colourful woven blankets. Most of the occupants sat on the ground, though several of the old ladies perched on stools. Fat babies tottered in and out. A few of the men sat on upturned boxes and played a game with stones and laughed a lot. They wore colourful ponchos, smoked pipes and didn’t have many teeth. The women wore small bowler hats that sat high on their heads. They, to our surprise, smoked pipes too. They talked, laughed, spat and yawned without shifting those pipes a quarter of an inch. Jackie and I tried it with twigs - but it didn ’t work.
They waved and called to us as we passed, easing the ponchos over their shoulders and laughing as they said things we didn’t understand - but it seemed good manners to laugh back. We waved and ran on, down the length of a long, long wall, across a bare stony plain strewn with tufts of tinder-dry brush and cactus, on to our destination - A very old, but still much used cemetery. Without a doubt our favourite place, made even more so by the knowledge that we were very sure we shouldn’t be there.
Six year olds are not squeamish. They are too curious, and usually most appreciative of the unexpected and unusual. The Cemetery covered every bit of that. We trotted through the ancient arch-way, bleached white by years of endless sun, into a poorly grassed area criss-crossed by deep, wide walls. It was in these walls that the Peruvians buried their dead. They were not foolish enough to contemplate digging deep holes in that hard, dry and stony ground. They had a much better idea and deposited their dear departed into deep cavities in even deeper walls. Several of these unique tombs had collapsed with age, and a lot more were in a state of considerable disrepair. We spent a happy time scrambling over the stones, an d then spent a cheerful hour playing with the bones.
Pulling the sometimes still slightly sticky contents out of their crumbling crannies we lovingly re-assembled skulls, clavicles, femurs and feet on the stony grass. Perhaps not in the right order, and often not exactly person to person - but who minded. Certainly the flies didn’t. As the afternoon got hotter we got wearier and soon decided that ice-cold lemonade would be a good idea. Besides, it must be n early tea-time. We hastily heaved random bones into various cubby-holes and collected a marvellous array of left-overs into my pink sun bonnet - to take home for some future entertainment. The sun was now casting deep shadows the length of the long stone wall. Only a few women now sat outside the shacks, smoking their strong smelly pipes. They waved as we ran past. The main road was almost deserted, with just a very old man on an ancient bicycle squeaking painfully past on heavily patched tyres. We were thirsty by the time we reached the carefully tended flowerbeds of the Country Club, and made our way under the avenue of palm trees, managing to sneak into the Clubhouse by the back doors without getting caught.
Soon we were sitting with Jackie’s Mother, under a gen tly swishing fan, the long, drooping leaves of potted plants swaying softly in their light breeze. There was a low murmer of tea-time chatter and the unmistakable clink of spoons on saucers. There were dainty sandwiches cut into pretty shapes, ice-cold lemonade to be sipped through red and white striped straws, with mint leaves and a cherry. But best of all we were allowed one each of the little heart-shaped palmier biscuits with their deliciously crunchy tops. We sat and munched away.
Our bedroom was on the ground floor. It was the nearest bedroom to the lounge. Very near indeed.
The scream that rent the air sent tea-spoons flying and tea-cups clattering. Neither Jackie not I could imagine what was wrong. But when my Mother staggered into the lounge we suddenly had an inkling. She was ashen, and her shaking fingers held a very dirty trailing bed-spread. The whole lounge was suddenly engulfed in a very big hush. Strange noises came from Mother’s mouth as people sat her down and gave her tea; holding her hand and saying “There, there, dear!”
The next day Jackie and I agreed that grown-ups were extremely strange. We had both thought that the skelington we had so artistically put on Mother’s bed looked very nice indeed. One leg was shorter than the other and the skull was certainly one of the stickier ones, but we had brushed off the larger maggots - the pink ones. We just left the more active white variety. We only threw the bed cover over them to stop them escaping. Very successfully - because they hadn’t. How were we to know that Mother had fallen off her horse and had to lie down.
All that fuss……
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> A day in my life