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Twenty-Four Days ‘til Christmas

When I was small (that is, small-er) my brother and I would become very excited on the first of December. We were never spoiled with lavish gifts at Christmas, but we always rushed downstairs in the dark on Christmas morning expecting something special to be under the tree, and we were never disappointed. I’m not quite as enthusiastic these days. I usually slither out of bed grumbling about all the cooking I have to do, and brew coffee before I open gaily-wrapped parcels of the inevitable: scarf/night-shirt/bed-socks/’phone cover/soap/self-help book I will never read…all the favourites.

Twenty-four days is just over three weeks. Three weeks ‘til Christmas. It was July a minute ago, and we were basking beside the village pool with cold beers in hand. Where did five months go? The sunny terrace we hosted summer barbis on back in those salad days is now strewn with wet leaves from our naked walnut tree, and all the furniture is tucked under the pergola out of the rain. The roses that scented the summer air are leggy, their leaves yellowing, begging to be pruned back. Pot plants that bloomed in the sunshine are tucked away in sheltered places. Dampness has crept in everywhere, my knees creak, and I still haven’t got around to putting the plastic cover over the polytunnel frame. I have had a perpetual head-cold for over a week, so I’m under par, and I’m behind with quite a few jobs. Bah-Humbug!

I adore Christmas, but I am not as excited about it as I would normally be this close to the Big Day, ‘though I did manage to locate and erect one small tree; it’s on the hatstand in the hallway between the kitchen and sitting-room. Allegedly, I am getting all the decos out before the weekend, and putting up the main tree and the belen.

Ah, the belen. The focus of that Silent, Holy Night. The parish church didn’t have one last year, due to Covid. We are assured that this year’s will be spectacular as always. I love to stand before it and imagine myself in Bethlehem. The location of our own little belen will have to be carefully reconsidered; last year Raphael snatched a shepherd and ran away with him, so keeping the Holy Family, Magi, and attendant pastoral folk safe from our naughty, mis-named, chihuahua is a priority. My little Bethlehem scene will have to sit somewhere out of his reach. Easier said than done, the little b***ard climbs like a goat.  And there’s the cat…she’s sixteen, a bit dotty, and she spends most of her day asleep in various unusual and unexpected spots. But at Christmas she perks up of an evening, energized and keen to destroy decorations. She likes to insinuate herself into the stable, disguised as a gigantic striped sheep. Gold, frankincese and purr, for the Little Lord Jesus?

My annual Christmas Hamper collection is underway for the fourth year, with pledges of lovely food and gifts for our less fortunate neighbours pouring in already. Through the many challenges our circle of friends has faced this year, most have found it within themselves to think of others, and I find that very heartening. It’s our way of saying thanks to the locals for having us. Living here on the Sacred Shore is not something any of us takes for granted. Our social-worker friend makes sure that those most in need receive a hamper. She and her team deliver them the week before Christmas,so that people have some treats, and a little gift to celebrate the season with.

Twenty-four days ‘til Christmas. I hope that each of those days brings us closer to the earthly, and the eternal, peace promised us. I hope that twenty-four days from now we will all be smiling around laden tables, with people we love beside us wearing silly paper hats, fires burning brightly, crackers cracking, wine flowing. I hope. I dare to hope. Because Christmas is all about hope, and if we do not permit ourselves the luxury of hope, then the Grinches will have stolen Christmas from our hearts.

Empanada Navideña Inglesa

I am not a lover of “fusion” food – taking a great traditional recipe and messing with it until its flavour and integrity is lost in translation. But I have broken my own rules with this empanada! I love all the traditional Galician empanada fillings, and I often make them at home as well as buying them from our amazing local bakery. But it’s Advent, Christmas is coming, and I am craving flavours that I grew up with. The distinctive aroma of sage and onion stuffing brings the happy Christmas dinners of my childhood to mind. So, this morning, I experimented a little and I created a Christmassy empanada, filled with sage and onion stuffing, and some roast potatoes for good measure. We scoffed a slice each as soon as it came out of the oven. And I have to say, it is not half bad. I hope you enjoy it too. It’s nice hot or cold, and it works well with a blob of the famous English Branston pickle, or any other pickle you have in the pantry. Buen provecho!

The Pastry

This recipe makes enough for one large empanada/pie. I divide it into four or six for pasties/empanadillas/sausage rolls. I do not measure – preferring to gauge by the look and feel of the dough, so all measurements are approximate and to personal taste. If you want pastry that has a more buttery flavour, just use half the amount of pork lard and replace it with butter. For a sweeter pastry, add more sugar, less salt. You can also add dried herbs/finely chopped fresh herbs to the dough.


3 – 3 1/2 cups all-purpose wheat flour

1 level tbsp sugar

2 level tsps salt

1 egg, well beaten into ¾ cup warm water

Approx. 75gram each very cold salted butter and pork lard


Sift the flour into a deep bowl

Add the sugar and salt and mix well

Cut the butter and pork lard into smallish cubes and add all at once

 Coat in flour then rub in using finger tips only, until pastry resembles a fine crumb

Add the egg/water mix a little at a time, cutting in with a metal knife, until it is all incorporated.

Mix well to form a loose dough ball, and if necessary, add a little more water or flour depending on the tackiness of the dough – you want it moist and putty-like, not dry, and flaky or wet and “shaggy.”

Work the dough very gently with floured hand until it is a neat ball – do not overwork it or knead it.

Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour until the dough is nice and firm.

Roll it out on a floured board, not pressing too hard. Keep everything as cool as possible. I roll it quite thin – though a little thicker for the bottom of the empanada/pie, with the lid being a little thinner. Brush with egg-wash before baking to give it a gloss.

The Filling

500g minced pork

Tbsp each chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, sage, and flat leaf parsley

Tsp each sea salt and cracked black pepper

1/2 very finely chopped smallish onion

1 finely chopped clove of garlic

1 egg beaten (reserve a little for egg wash on top of empanada)

1tsbsp olive oil (for the potatoes)

2 slices day-old bread

2tbsps milk

2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced quite thinly, then roasted in the oven in a little olive oil until soft and golden, but not crisp. I season them well with salt and pepper and a clove of garlic. Cool once cooked.


Place the meat, seasoning and chopped herbs in a bowl. Blitz the bread into crumbs, or just tear it and mash it into the milk. Add to meat and herbs. Beat egg and add to mix. Mix well with hands – squeezing, to make the meat mix smoother.  Chill for an hour to firm up.


Roll out the cold pastry according to instructions above. Lay the base on a flat tray (a pizza tin works fine) sprinkled with a little flour. Spread half the meat mix onto the base then layer on the sliced roasted potatoes. Spread on a second layer of meat mix. Lay on the pastry top and seal around the edges well, crimping in any style you like, or marking with a fork. Paint with egg wash (a spoonful of the beaten egg mixed with a little milk or water). Mark the top by scoring with a knife in any style you like.

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for approximately 30 minutes or until a light golden brown. The pastry should be crisp and light, not overcooked.

Potato Pizza

Carb-up this winter!



  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 sachet active dry yeast or about a heaped tbsp of live yeast
  • 3-1/2 to 4 cups strong plain or 00 flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/3 cup  olive oil

Mix warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar; add yeast and whisk until dissolved. Let stand until bubbles form on surface. In a large bowl, whisk 3 cups flour, salt, remaining 1 teaspoon sugar Make a well in centre and add yeast mixture and oil. Stir until smooth. Add enough remaining flour to form a soft dough.

Turn onto a floured surface; knead, adding more flour to surface as needed until no longer sticky and dough is smooth and elastic, at least 10 minutes. Place in a large greased bowl and turn once to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 40 minutes then transfer clean bowl, cling-wrap and to refrigerate overnight. When you want to throw the pizza, allow the dough to come to room temperature, at least 30 minutes, before rolling/throwing.


2 generous tbsps. Cream cheese (with herbs and garlic is nice)

1 finely sliced onion

1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan and ½ cup fresh mozzarella

Sea salt

Coarsely ground black pepper

6 baby potatoes/small potatoes roasted with garlic/sliced


Throw the dough and sprinkle flour and polenta onto the pizza pan. Flatten out the dough to the edges and sprinkle surface with a little polenta and a drizzle of olive oil

Spread the cream cheese on first, then sprinkle on the Parmesan

Add the sliced onion and half the mozzarella.

Add the roasted sliced potatoes and the rest of the mozzarella

Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle sea salt and black pepper

Cook in a med. Hot oven until top bubbles and goes golden and the dough is cooked.

Scatter finely chopped fresh rosemary and thyme all over

Forty Days

15th November 2022

It’s forty days until Christmas. I have a counter on my computer. Yes, I like Christmas that much. Forty is such a significant number. I don’t subscribe to numerology, but forty is a milestone, isn’t it? One’s fortieth birthday springs to mind: like the first, and the twenty-first, it’s a Big One. I celebrated my fortieth birthday in Brussels, in a bar I managed for a time – as it turned out, a very significant time. I enjoyed champagne cocktails, and I completely changed my life in a number of significant ways.

The number forty appears many times in the Bible: there are forty days and nights of rain during the Great Flood, Moses lived for forty years in Egypt, then spent forty days on Mount Sinai. The Israelites journeyed forty years to reach the Promised Land, and Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days in the desert. Biblical scholars consider the number forty to be a rounded number that was used to express a complete period of time, rather than an expression such as many or some.  Similarly, we normally refer to a range of years, from eight to twelve as about a decade – it’s a complete sequence that transitions to another period of time. In the Bible, after each forty days or years, a great event occurs, or a definitive transition takes place, this helps the (forty!) sacred authors to highlight theological parallels.

Forty days ‘til Christmas. The last forty days have been days of contrast – some have been days of wanton joy and fun, while others crackled with intensity and concern. I was vaccinated, again, twice, for ‘flu and for Covid, then endured two full days of feeling wretched – like I had been danced on by malicious, clog-wearing elves in my sleep! Other people I know battled serious conditions – fought for their lives.

This year’s Christmas plans have changed, and once again, we are hosting the feast at our home. I have changed the menu three times so-far. Past years featured an Indian extravaganza, more traditional turkey dinners, and the star of last year’s show was roasted duck breast with port and redcurrant jus, no less, just a little bit fancy-schmancy! It doesn’t matter what’s on the table, it’s who’s sitting around it that counts, and we are blessed to have good friends around our table.

Forty days ‘til Christmas. Definitive transitions, significant events: for some a first Christmas, for some it will be a last Christmas. Feasts for some, famine for others. And, so it goes…in increments of time: ten, twenty, thirty, forty…seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, decades, centuries, millennia…

This will be our fifth Christmas in Galicia , and in July, we will celebrate the fifth anniversary of our arrival in Panton. Our home has undergone some changes since the first anniversary; the house appears very different, but the warm, happy atmosphere we felt the first time we walked around it remains. This house has only ever belonged to three families, ours included; each has loved it and been happy in it. You can feel that in the stones. We feel it in our bones. And when we lay the table and light the Christmas candles, our friends will feel the joy of home, friendship, and Christmas. We can count on that much. Forty days to go. And no matter what happens in the wide world, in forty days it will be Christmas.

Beavering Away!

The full Moon in November this year is called the Beaver Moon. In north America mid-fall/autumn was traditionally the time when indigenous people set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure they had a supply of warm winter furs. The name also suggests the frenetic activity of beavers, as they prepared their own lodges for winter. This year, November’s Beaver Moon is accompanied by a total lunar eclipse, making it a Blood MoonDuring such a lunar eclipse, the Moon, Sun, and Earth stand in a line, with the Earth in the middle, causing our planet’s shadow to be cast onto the Moon. This gives the full Moon a reddish, coppery hue, as well as its catchy nickname.

Here in Panton, everyone is beavering away at autumnal chores. The wood-stacks are high, and the larders and freezers are full of summer preserves and produce. Many hay bales stand rotting in fields, sodden with rain, turning black with mould. Such a waste. I haven’t found out why they have been neglected. Hay is valuable winter feed. I had a lazy year as far as my garden and preserving went, but I have stocked the alpendre with an impressive stash of non-perishable basics, just in case this winter brings shortages and price-hikes.

The chickens require attention: their run needs a good clean, and their coop re-painting. It is presently green, because I had a lot of leftover green paint in the shed when the coop was built a couple years back, but it will soon become a cheerful, glossy, Christmassy red. This week I will also be shovelling out the layer of well-composted bedding and poop, which is at least fifteen centimetres deep on the floor of the run. That rich mulch will be going onto the raised beds to feed the winter greens, onions, and garlic. A layer of sand and gravel is going down in its place, to absorb the winter rains. The girls have been wormed, and they will be dosed with a multi-vitamin booster before the cold weather sets in. Chicken fanciers note: the girls love yoghurt; it is great for their gut-health and makes for strong egg shells. A few tablespoons of apple vinegar added to their water is also beneficial. I like a bowl of porridge for breakfast in winter, and the girls get a share of that too, as will our two doggos. The boys both need a seasonal bath, especially Stumpy, who found something in the woods that delighted his senses so much, that he rolled himself in whatever it was. Suffice to say, it was the poo of some other beastie, most likely a fox…the canine equivalent of Brut. The local lady dogs must be swooning.

Our roof needs attention, but I won’t be getting up a ladder to see to that! The recent rains have revealed a few spots needing patches. We also await the man with the digger, who will come and gouge out a drain in the garden. We’ve waited since June. He’s busy…I am looking into ways to harvest the rain water that is wasted when it cascades into our land and simply seeps into the soil.

Last week we cleared out two deep drawers full of sweatshirts and pants, pyjamas, and woolly jumpers. Now neatly sorted and “culled” the discarded items are all bagged up for delivery to a local charity. The end of this month is when I start my annual Christmas Hamper Drive: friends and acquaintances put together boxes of groceries and some small, nicely-wrapped gifts, which our local social worker collects the week before Christmas and distributes to people in need. We’ve been doing this for three years now – this is our fourth. Last year we collected over a dozen generous hampers. I am aiming for twenty this year. Not everyone can afford to stock up their larder, so this is our small way of saying to our community: “Thanks for having us.”

The mornings are cool enough for me to justify lighting the kitchen wood burner, and around four in the afternoon I light the one in the sitting-room, to enjoy some tea and a good book by the fire. The two novels I chose for my Christmas reading are stashed in the bookshelf, and a parcel of three of Ian Rankin’s Rebus series is on the way. It would be tempting to spend the winter in pyjamas, but this year, I am taking inspiration from our toothy rodent friends; I have decided to watch less tv and occupy myself more productively when I’m not reading and writing. A couple of years ago, my first attempt at decoupage turned out quite nice, transforming a battered side table with some old maps and a few coats of bright paint. So, this winter I have some less ambitious projects lined up, having recently used napkins to brighten up cheap storage boxes bought at the local Chino for a just few euros. I have also acquired a job-lot of interestingly-shaped bottles to have a go at. Alternatively, I could snuggle on the couch with Raphael and binge-watch Game of Thrones again…

Autumn Leaves

Roger Williams, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Tony Bennet, Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Edith Piaf…they’ve all covered one my favourite tunes.  Something about leaves falling from trees brings out the melancholic in me. Chet Baker’s is my favourite version, ‘though it is hard to top Sinatra’s slowed-down, wistful cover.

The vivacious green umbrellas of summer have been shaken violently by the wind this week, shedding bronze and gold. A fat chestnut bounced off the peak of my cap the other day. The dogs tip-toe down the lane to the neighbour’s orchard, over a spikey carpet of them. The neighbour’s apples did not get picked this year; they are already disintegrating around the base of the trees, and there has been rain, glorious Galician rain, softening the rock-hard ground that parched all summer. The year is ending. 2022 is ending. Many things we all take for granted are also ending, it seems: these years of peace and plenty that we lucky ones have enjoyed seem to have run their course, and I think we are all in for some belt-tightening.

 I’ve been thinking lately about stuff…material things. I’ve been thinking about how little I need, but how much I have. So, I am going to have a clear-out before winter sets in, and what cannot be sold will be given away. My grandmother was one for such soul-cleansing gestures. She once instructed my uncles to carry all the furniture in her parlour to the flat of a young, newly-married couple, who had eloped and had nothing. She gave away her good stuff, that was rarely used, and she hung onto the well-worn day-to-day familiar things. I find that interesting: give away your best, not the stuff you have already discarded.

As I tune into Youtube for interesting music and my daily online devotions, I come across far too much doom-mongering and alarmism. Some of it is scary, some utterly ridiculous. When I was four, I saw an old chap in the street wearing a placard that predicted: The End is Nigh, that was fifty-seven years ago. I was walking up Royal Avenue in Belfast holding my mother’s hand. A man was taking the mickey out of the old bloke, asking him what day the end would come, so he wouldn’t have to bother going in to work that day. I had a similar reaction to a commentator on Youtube yesterday, who predicted that humans will be wiped out within thirty years. I scrolled along until I found some Renaissance motets. Renaissance – revival. The period that followed the so-called Dark Ages, which in terms of art and music were not dark at all, just the ending of a global empire…one of the many global empires that seemed eternal, that flourished for a time, then fell. Yet nothing of worth ended with them.

We Catholics repeat the Glory Be frequently in our daily prayers; it finishes: World without end. Amen.  Dear God, how I hope this epoch goes out with a whimper and not a bang.

Last of the Summer Whine

Final barbi of the season!

Autumn has begun. But the weather still thinks it’s late summer. Temperatures haven’t moved much out of the mid-20s (the 70s in “old money.”) Rain has been infrequent and not sufficient to do much good. The local vineyards harvested 10% less fruit this year, due to the Big Dry, and higher temperatures, although a quality vintage is forecast; swings and roundabouts…or I should say: “columpios y rotondas…” The endless afternoons swimming and snoozing by various pools were heavenly, but I am bored with warm days, and I’m longing to feel a nip in the air when I take the dogs out, or potter about in the garden.

I have been feeling nostalgic about the colder weather, longing for those misty mornings when I light the kitchen wood burner as soon as I rise. The coming weeks are all about the garden projects that got neglected during summer, because it was just too damn hot to bother. Extending the chicken run is essential, and should have been happened last autumn, but…I had an excuse for that, but I seem to have misplaced it…

I have help in the garden, from able local men Diego and Steve, so at least some of my carefully-planned jobs did get done! The next event to anticipate is the delivery and stacking of a load of firewood for next year. It is essential to be stocked-up well ahead, so that the wood is seasoned properly before burning. First fire of the year is always a lovely event, and one we celebrate with a drink before the blaze. The annual garden bonfire is another highlight, one I will save until Hallowe’en, and turn into a little party with friends. Sausage rolls and hot cider. Maybe a sing-song and a few ghostly tales. Not exactly a rave-up, but when everyone has arthritis and reflux, it’s as far as we dare go!

This summer was one of contrasts: great highs and some deep lows. I haven’t enough British genes to adopt that noble race’s famous “mustn’t grumble” attitude. I do like a whinge and a whine, but it’s hard to find anything to whine about here in Paradise. Dammit!

On Saturday our friends came over for the last barbi of the season: slow-cooked pork ribs, and steaks. A friend brought a fabulous Pavlova topped with summer fruits from her garden. It’s not a barbi without a Pav! On Sunday we participated in our own little Wellness Walk, in tandem with the main event in Australia, which raises funds for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Care project annually. Sadly, Sarah’s lovely sister could not lead the walkers out this year, but the rest of her family were there to carry on with the tradition.

A new week has begun with new chores to tackle – the de-worming of chickens, and the quarterly administration of Bravecto to both the hounds. I intend to use my standard technique: “Here you go, Raphie/Stumpy, eat this tasty treat, which has absolutely no Bravecto in it…” The usual result of which involves me salvaging bits of expensive veterinary pills from lumps of chewed-up mince/cheese/ham/chicken. Both my bonny boys have developed the skill of eating around even the tiniest grains of medication. My last resort is to powder the pills and dissolve them in yoghurt, which I then have to pretend to eat while I announce: “Look, Mama has num-nums…” Then the little. scroungers happily lap up every spoonful.

“From Here to Eternity”

“…what we do in life…echoes in eternity.”

One of my all-time favourite movies is Gladiator – is it really twenty-two years since Russell rocked the toga? In the opening sequence, General Maximus inspires his men as they prepare to do battle, with words borrowed from Marcus Aurelius:

“Brothers, what we do in life…echoes in eternity.”

In the past couple of months I have pondered Eternity. I lost two people who were close to my heart, and a number of friends have received challenging medical diagnoses that brought us around kitchen tables together, with coffee, wine and words of comfort.

“What we do in life…” Gee, that’s big stuff to consider. Some people seem to cram a lot into their allotted time on earth – some do good, some dedicate their lives to the misery and ruin of others. In this, still infant, digital age, we receive words of dubious wisdom via trite little memes, that constantly urge us to stop “sweating the small stuff.” “Make life all about you!” Seems to be the message. Is it not the “small stuff” that we do which is often the most important to others; an offer of practical help, the gift of homemade soup or cake, offered during tough times, which makes the difference? A cup of coffee can transform a day: a day that might be so overwhelmingly hard that someone is considering just giving up, but the breathing space they find in companionship may stop them spinning just long enough to be able to see through their vale of tears. Could some such small stuff open someone’s eyes to a glimmer of light behind their dark cloud of despair, that shows them a hidden path to hope?

I have not commanded armies, nor battled barbarian hordes. But I have led teams, people who helped other people to do battle: addictions, mental health crises, homelessness, abuse and despair. Helped others to fight the battle of Life. I have commanded small platoons, of chefs, who produced wonderful food that pleased people and made them glad in heart and belly. I have made gardens, and cared for animals. I have nursed ageing parents and seen them safely to the Other Side, with dignity and love. Small stuff, that I was happy to “sweat.” Most of the people I know have done the same. It seems to be all about service: serving others, not oneself. And that’s really not small stuff.

It appears to me that we are constantly offered opportunities to do things that will resonate throughout eternity, and what we do with those opportunities forms us and prepares us for what is to come. Someone recently said to me: “I think we just exist by accident. Then one day we simply cease to exist.” All the more reason, then, to “sweat more small stuff.” To care, to give a shit. To leave behind just one individual who might say of us: “He once did something kind that made all the difference to me.”

I hold onto a different ethos, one based on an enduring soul that soars one day from this earthly body and enters Eternity. So, I try to make my small stuff count. Not in order to purchase a pass to Heaven, but to fulfill all that I have been given the potential to be, on this earth, and in Eternity. I hope that the echo of my small voice in the vastness of that which is and that which is to come, is laughter, poetry, the clatter of pans on the stove, and the clink of glasses raised in toasts to life. L’Chaim! To life! To that small stuff that makes it marvelous.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  Psalm 139:16

Summertime in Shangri-La

14th August 2022

Panton has been browning in the sun since June, and I think we are done on both sides now. I hope that Mother Nature will soon douse the flame and allow us to cool off! I am a lover of extremes, so for me this heatwave has been glorious, apart from water restrictions, bush fires, threats of drought, and the endless nights, when the air is so dense and fuggy that sleeping is impossible. But I have not had to work, commute, nor wrangle cranky, bored children. So, forgive my minor whinge.

We simply adapted to conditions and moved ourselves, and the dog bed, into the largest bedroom at the rear of the house, where harsh direct sun does not come in, and the windows have screens, so we can sleep with them open. That just made good sense. We bought a column fan, which sounded like a helicopter taking off in the bedroom, while ineffectually wafting warm air around the bed. That’s back in the cupboard. I resorted to freezing plastic water bottles, wrapping them in hand towels, and surrounding myself with them. That innovation, and a cheap gel eye mask, which I froze, and wore as a somewhat eccentric headband, has kept my core temperature out of the red!

The grass in the huerta looks like straw. The hens are laying during the cooler parts of the day, so we collect their eggs at night. And I have moved all my more physical activities to early mornings or the hour after sundown. During the peak heat I write in my cool stone-walled study, then I swim at the village pool after lunch for a few hours, until the post-siesta hordes descend.

A creature of routine, I head up to the pool around two most afternoons, claim my favourite pitch under the giant oak tree, and treat myself to an ice-cream from the cafe while I read. Then, when I am lightly boiled, I down book and dive into the cool water. A couple of laps of lazy breast-stroke is more than enough activity before the next treat. But if there are any young posers around, I do like to show off my underwater handstand, still perfect after all these years. I just feel a need to let them know that inside the fat señora who bobs along serenely in her demure one-piece, struts a sporty chica in a bikini!

The Spanish are not shy people. The racket of cheerful chatter in and out of the water is gladdening. Like all activities here, swimming is multi-generational, and performed in huge rowdy, aimlessly wandering groups. The hordes occupy the grass lido, while the teenagers stake claim to the terraced concrete bleachers. They are probably the only ones who can negotiate this steep stepped area without the aid of walking poles or a hoist. Up they leap, like snarky goats, to congregate, preen and pass fashion judgement on we lesser beings huddled below on the prickly grass.

I watch them droop through the gate with families they are desperate to abandon, and I recall my own youth, when my combination eye-roll/sarcastic sigh was as perfectly timed and executed as my aquatic handstand. My dear, late, dad would goad me, singing: “I’ll Never Smile Again” or “Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking” until I clumped off in my platform wedge sandals.

I love to play ball in the water with a random little one, knowing their parents aren’t concerned by Stranger Danger. I love that abuelas are not allocated a separate time to swim in case their wrinkles offend the Body Nazis. Back home in Australia, Beach Apartheid was a thing: you just did not venture onto the hallowed sands of Tamarama or Bronte if you were anything less than a perfect ten, or over the age of thirty. Coogee was where the codgers were sent into exile. Bondi was for the bold, the beautiful and the backpackers. It’s also where Asian tourists go to drown. I do confess to having enjoyed the odd cruel mock at the expense of red-headed Celts, watching their blinding white flesh turn the colour of raw mince as soon as the sun hit them. Maroubra was always the preserve of loco surfer dudes and stray stoners, ‘though frequently invaded by schools of stinging jellyfish in the afternoons. And, the gorgeous northern beaches were…well…the northern beaches. You just didn’t go there in a K-Mart cozzie, and you certainly didn’t squeal: “No fcukn’ way, mate! For real?” when a human man-bun in a beach-side café demanded six bucks for a latte.

I may never vacation away from home again. I have everything I need right there. My entire life is one long, lovely holiday. And it costs one euro-fifty to idle a summer day away. That’s cheap as a café con leche, sin man-bun.

“The Last of the Mohicans”

My mother, who passed away two years ago, was the youngest of eight children. My grandparents’ sixth child, her sister Kathleen, was my one remaining aunt. Of the five beautiful girls in my mother’s family, Kathleen was considered to be the great beauty. Kathleen was also known for her lack of patience, her acid wit and her nuclear temper. I was always told that I favoured her in temperament, ‘though I did not inherit her looks.

She turned 90 in March, and passed away on the 28th July. I called her “The Last of the Mohicans”, which made her laugh. And she laughed a lot. She was the most easy-going, open-hearted person I have ever known. I loved all my aunts, but this one was rather special to me. She is the one I was able to spend the most time with as an adult. On the days I worked from home, I would be sure to start and finish early so that I could beat the rush-hour traffic and make the 45-minute drive to her house, where we would spend long afternoons just enjoying each other’s company.

Now and then I would tackle small jobs for her. Bathing her cranky Maltese-Shitzu, Zorro, and snipping the dags that tangled around his bum was always fun. I was one of the chosen few whom Zorro would permit to perform this sacred task without biting. Lucky me.

The loss of favourite people is inevitable in this life. I hope that I am someone’s favourite person, and will be quietly missed one day, as I miss my aunt. When I was a child, she often minded me while my mother worked, and she invented stories involving two characters: Fairy Featherlight, and Fairy Scoundrel. One good, the other a naughty creature, and her stories encouraged me to listen only to the advice of Fairy Featherlight.

When I was three years old my heart’s delight was to empty my aunt’s handbag and examine its contents methodically, and I took a shine to her gold Ronson lighter, a gift from her fiancé. I buried it in the garden, for safekeeping. She searched everywhere. My grandmother suggested Kathleen interrogate the notoriously light-fingered child (moi!) and she did, promising a bar of chocolate to the “finder” of the lost lighter.  According to family lore I responded: “Fairy Scoundrel must have taken it. Do you want me to ask Fairy Featherlight to bring it back?” She used to love to re-tell that story. ‘Though she omitted her response. She could swear like a sailor. That much I did inherit from her. My grandfather found the lighter one morning, weeks later, when he dug up a cabbage for the dinner. I caused much mirth when I told my aunt later that evening: “See, Auntie Kathleen! I told you that Fairy Featherlight would help you to find it!” I never got the chocolate. But I did receive a toy koala from her when she arrived, newly-married, in Australia a year later. It had a pink bow around its neck and it played “Waltzing Matilda” when you turned a key in its belly.

I still have my koala. I moved it the other day when I was tidying a bedroom shelf, and when I lifted it down, it plaintively played the first bar of the tune. It had not been wound, nor played in a long time. So, I like to think that my aunt was reminding me of those happy times, and that she and Fairy Featherlight are laughing together in Heaven, as they light up their celestial cigarettes with her gold Ronson.