A Difficult Time

Bob and I wanted to go to South America. His friend, Jim, whom he had met when he was twelve years old and who also read Spanish at Liverpool University, was already settled in Maracaibo in Venezuela with his wife. He had a job with Royal Dutch Shell. He sent glowing accounts of their life there. When Bob graduated, two years before me, he took a job in a London bank that wanted someone who knew French and Spanish. His intention was to apply to Shell after a while, because it wasn’t easy to be accepted by this company. In fact it was more than two years before he was offered a post with Shell.

I missed him very much as I had to stay in Liverpool for two more years to get my degree. I spent long periods on my own in the library reading literature with occasional visits to London. My enthusiasm for studying was waning. I found it hard to concentrate. I still felt I must go back to Mother in the holidays and that was always very depressing. The strain of all this had a psychosomatic effect on me. My hair began to come out in handfuls every time I washed it. Some nasty- smelling thick ointment was prescribed for me by the hospital. I had to massage it into my scalp, leave it for a while and then shampoo my hair. It actually worked. At that time we never heard about psychosomatic illness. Yet we now know how common it is when we are under severe stress.

I went to Spain in my last two summer holidays as part of my course. First to Santander with the other people in my year for two weeks. It was quite enjoyable except for our attendance at a bull-fight. All of us felt utterly disgusted by such cruelty.

The next year I went on my own for nine weeks in Barcelona. I was the only one studying Catalan, an extremely difficult language that I only partly mastered. The other six fellow students in my year all chose to learn Portuguese, which is much easier, so they were sent to Portugal. I have never felt so alone in my life when I stepped off the train at Barcelona. I had been given the address of a boarding-house by another student who had stayed there the year before. It was very cheap. It had to be. My grant was only £90 for 9 weeks

I have always been very susceptible to atmospheres. Barcelona had a particularly depressed aura, partly caused by the soldiers in uniform who guarded mounted machine guns outside every bank. The atmosphere of the civil war was still there. The boarding house I had booked into was dark, untidy and full of rough-looking working-class men. The food was the worst I have ever seen before or after. I didn’t feel safe there. Within a week I found somewhere else , I can’t remember where, but it was a godsend to me. I met a lady called Doris. She spoke upper-class English and had come some time ago to live in Spain. She was a painter and she lived in an attic where only a painter could live. It had big windows letting in the light, lots of room with pictures and easels all over the place. One picture dominated all the rest. A portrait of the ballerina in the film “The Red Shoes”. She had one small spare room and she offered it to me. She asked for a very small rent, one I could manage. Her only proviso was that I move out occasionally when her tall, handsome Spanish lover came who was also a painter and spent his time travelling all around the country.

Doris was always short of money. She only sold a painting occasionally. She lived on the money she got from teaching Spaniards English in a nearby building. She suggested that I apply for a temporary job there. They were pleased to take me on. I was very Spanish-looking with my black hair and dark eyes and I was good-looking, although I didn’t yet know that. Most of the students were men, so the owner liked to employ women who were not only educated but looked good.

Doris and I got on well. We were both outsiders. Like me she wanted to make her own money. One day she asked me if I would like to go to Majorca to visit the writer Robert Graves, another ex-patriot who was a friend of hers. Of course I would! There was one drawback, neither of us had the money for the trip. Nor did we up to the time I went back to England. What a pity that I missed such an opportunity.

Ostensibly I was supposed to visit university libraries, find something that interested me and write about it. I only went a few times, made a few pages and notes and that was all.

When I got back no-one asked to see them to my great relief.

Bob met me at the station when I got back. “How thin you’ve got!” he said. We’ll go out tonight and feed you up.” I have never enjoyed a meal as much ever.

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