We had spent an uncomfortable yet amusing few days in clink and were now out on bail. My mother, who had been supportive during the ordeal, smuggling in Casera bottles full of vodka, while we lounged about reading books and listening to the World Service, was now angry with us about the whole experience and my ever-so-slightly contrite dad was ready to ‘put things right’.
We had been spotted sawing down four of Mojácar’s first-ever billboards in a late-night drunken spree – this was in 1971 – and, a mere three months later, the Guardia Civil had told us to report to the Vera hoosegow and to bring a change of clothes.
When we got there, early and excited, the cop told us to go and have a drink in the bar while ‘our beds were being made’. On our return, we bumped into the carpenter just coming out, while brushing some sawdust off his trousers. ‘They’re ready now’, he said brightly.
But, five days down the line and with an uncomfortable interrogation with the judge behind us, we were now out and reinserting ourselves back into society as hard as we could in the bar opposite the town hall while my mother gave me some parental grief about ‘being an old lag at seventeen’.
She had borrowed the money from friends to make our bail and we were able to go home, with some vague threat of a court-case hanging over us in the future. It appeared that we could get three months in the old Almería prison, a thing that looked like a fortress from a foreign legion film. Things were, indeed, beginning to get a bit ‘serious’.
My dad called the embassy in Madrid and they began the process of smoothing things over (ah – the good old days!). I don’t know how far they had gotten with this – I mean, they still hadn’t Asked a Question in the House – when General Franco surprised us all by declaring a general amnesty on everyone except ‘politicals’ to celebrate his thirty-fifth year in power. We were free.
For some reason, the ambassador considered that it was a propitious time for him to visit the far-flung corners of his empire and so he wrote to my father telling him to put him up in the Parador and to entertain him and his wife when they arrived. A jealous friend of my father, a retired air-vice marshal and Rex Harrison look-alike with a withering sense of humour and a nasal accent, heard the news and rushed down to our house to see us. ‘I’ve brought you a present’, he whinnied, clutching a plant in his hands, ‘it’s a type of yellow creeper’.
The ambassador and his tweedy wife were duly shown around the pueblo (there wasn’t much on the playa in those days) and were gamely patient with some of the odd people who lived here then, including a very drunk and alarmingly homosexual American called Sammy who surprised the ambassador, who had clearly dealt with a few odd types himself, by saying that he wanted asylum together with a British passport, preferably a pink one.
The ambassadorial entourage had departed, the charges against us had been dropped, the ambassador’s influence had caused the judge in Vera to be transferred to a less agreeable destination (Algeciras), the billboards were back up on the beach and all was well.
Until, a month later, a package arrived from Madrid with a covering letter from the consulate. ‘The Ambassador has recommended you to be in charge of the Poppy collection’ began the note. The box, of course, was full of Poppies and pins.
The Poppy, a red paper flower with a plastic hook, is used by the British and many other nations to remember those fallen in the different armed conflicts of the past hundred years. It is worn on the left lapel to remember ‘the field of poppies’ (‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…’ from a poem written by a Canadian from the times of ‘the Great War’) and services are held throughout the Commonwealth on Armistice Day, which is on November 11th.
The box, unfortunately, had arrived in the Mojácar post office sometime in mid November, and there was little chance of catching up. My dad threw the box into a drawer somewhere and sent a cheque for ten thousand pesetas and a covering note back to the Consulate explaining that everyone had been thrilled to buy a poppy.
The next year, another box arrived, and poppies found their way into a couple of bars, where, without too much exaggeration on my part, they gathered dust. In due course, a second cheque was sent out. This continued for some time, with the cheques sometimes a bit more and other times (when the pound was down) perhaps a little less.
Some years later, when my father was ill, the package somehow found its way to me. Despite having, in those days, a lively reputation for handing out cheques to all-comers, I instead left tins in various bars and discovered, the hard way, that if you want donations, you have to go and ask for them. I do remember Charlie Braun, a large German from the seventies and eighties, once taking a Poppy from some box and putting in a few coins. ‘If it wasn’t for us’, he explained, ‘you vouldn’t have a Poppy Day’.
Luckily, somewhere around that time, the British Legion formed a much-needed chapter in Mojácar and, much to my relief, the key word ‘efficiency’ came to the Poppy collection.