This week’s Showcase comes from Jeremy Plumptre.
On a rainy day in Devon, many years ago, I had finished my English classes for the term. I was talking to my boss, a Spaniard, who suggested I looked for work in Spain. Why not? I thought. My knowledge of Spain was scanty……I imagined dusty empty plains, swirling señoritas clicking castanets singing “Viva España!” near hot sunny beaches. When I arrived in Asturias: it was raining harder than in Devon. On entering a bar to shelter I found the waiters were holding green bottles high up in the air and splashing liquid in a stream into glasses. Outside in the distance it seemed someone was playing Scottish bagpipes.The baker´s van went past with “Jesus” painted on the side. This was my first impression of Asturias.40 years later I´m still here, and I wouldn´t swap Asturias for any sun baked “mesita”,anywhere else in Spain.
Jeremy Peter Plumptre – Nuberu..or How to eat an elephant
Nuberu : a mythological creature in Asturian folklore, an imp, or a dwarf, a spirit, whatever you liked to imagine him. Anyway a thoroughly nasty little being anyway. Responsible for foul weather, storms, snow and a few landslides.
I was reading up on the mythology of Asturias, in North Western Spain, on the green coast, washed by the Cantabrian sea. I put down the book ” Mythological creatures of Asturias.” I looked out of the window at the fertile hills of Northern Spain passing below me. We´d be landing soon. Asturias…My cousin Jim had invited me to come and visit him in February, and had sent me this book as a joke: it had looked like the kind of book I would never touch, but actually it had held my interest all across the Bay of Biscay.
“We might even get some skiing in. Although the mountains here are not that high, 5000 feet or so, unlike the Pyrenees or the Alps, it’s still a nice day out if there´s any snow.”
I returned to my book. Nuberu, an ugly small chap who sent nasty weather and ruined the crops out of sheer spite. The Asturian kids in by-gone days had to be on their guard from these goblins. Didn´t do your homework, stepped out for a wander? The Sack Man (Hombre del Saco) will pounce on you, put you in his sack, and you´ll never be seen again. Nicked a cake from the larder, didn´t help mum wash up? The Trasgu will get you. He’ll trash your bedroom, wreck your toys…smash your Playstation..(oh no! that came 400 years later!). It seemed to me what all these ugly mythological creatures had in common was…they liked eating children…….
The plane was landing soon. I fastened my safety belt and looked out on the pleasant landscape rushing up to meet us. The sun was shining : Nuberu had clearly taken a break from his wreaking of havoc.
The weather had been kind for my flight to Spain, but two days later the Arctic Beast came down on us and for four days we were hit with high winds, drenching rain on the lowlands and blizzards of snow in the mountains: a man in a snow plough was lost in an avalanche for ever, villages were cut off, trees were blown down, roads were closed by landslides, especially in the mountain regions. We stayed huddled up in town, jawing of times past in the Teacher Training school, in London.
Then suddenly there was sunshine, the rooftops glistened, the distant mountain peaks sparkled with snow.
“Come on, let’s go,” said Jim.
“No, it’s closed. Goat stew. We’re going up to have goat stew. Up in the mountains “
We drove past sodden fields, ugly mining towns, up into the narrow lanes that took us into the foot of a sierra which rose above us some 4 or 5 thousand feet.
Landslides had blocked the roads everywhere. In one place a whole slice of the road had slid down the hill. We just managed to get through, although I would have prefered to walk.
The restaurant was an old stone building with two floors and a kitchen at the back. The floor, a dirty concrete.. In the corner was a grinning man, face as empty and round as a full moon, with a bald head like a plucked chicken. He mouthed incomprehensible words which I didn’t understand except he kept repeating the word “Nuberu,Nuberu,” and with a yellow nicotine finger pointing to the sky.”Village idiot”, murmured Jim, “They still have them in these parts.”
We were taken upstairs and sat down. The goat stew was excellent in a rich sauce. After eating we went downstairs for coffee. The idiot was still there, grinning at us.
The old men sitting near laughed at him and one said something which finished with “Nuberu,” and the group laughed even more. Including the idiot.
“What are they saying?”
“The luney bloke was telling you that Nuberu will come down and bring disaster to us both” said Jim. “His mates told him to stop insulting two guests and said he was an ugly old fart who was as ugly as Nuberu.”
“Right,” I said.”Be careful, these odd guys sometimes have a sixth sense.”
On the way back down the mountain the idiot´s prophecy seemed to be true: the weather turned wild, it began to snow until we reached the mining towns when it turned into lashing rain. We pressed on and arrived safely back in town ” Well, that wasn’t quite so bad, we haven’t had a disaster” Said Jim.
“Yet.” I said.
But Nuberu or Storm Caroline or the Arctic Beast or whatever you want to call it was fickle: two days later the weather was fine again and this time we set off for the ski slopes.
Once again we drove towards the mountains, stopping in the last town before climbing up to the ski station. We had a coffee and went to a ski hire shop. Once kitted out we went back to the car and Jim started the engine. Then it stalled and refused to start again.
Nobody could come out to look at the engine till the next day.It was Sunday.
We decided to hitch a ride in one of the minibuses going up to the ski station: later we would go back home in the bus and come back the next day . In Jim´s sister´s car.
We climbed aboard the minibus, skis and boots clattering as we managed to squeeze in. There was a tall smartly dressed man about 65 wearing what looked like a top of the range white and green ski suit.He had that type of sun tan which spoke of expensive holidays in the Carribean: hawklike eyes that darted to and fro assessing his fellow passengers. An arrogant stare that told me he was used to being top dog. A company director of some important firm to be sure.
He looked around again. In the bus he saw two men, badly dressed for skiing in old anoraks and tattered jeans (me and Jim!), a timid mousy thin old woman dressed in overalls, going up to clean the hotel at the ski resort, and a youth of some 20 years as scruffy as us but with a ski hat with a bright green label saying “marihuana” on the front.
The smart man rattled off something to the youth in a loud voice so everyone could hear. The youth mumbled back quietly, but looked defiantly back at him.
“What are they saying? ” I murmured to Jim.
“He was saying to the lad what the fuck are you wearing that stupid hat for? Why do you have to tell everyone you´re taking drugs? And the boy told him marihuana wasn’t any worse than the gin and tonics that he probably got pissed on with his snooty friends.”
“That’s right” Suddenly chirped up the man swivelling round to us, “So you´re English? My name´s Carlos, pleased to meet you.” Holding out a hand.
We took it, and as we settled in for the journey. Carlos regaled us with the details of his time in England, explaining why his English was so excellent ( It wasn´t. As Jim and I were both English teachers, we knew).
Meanwhile the youth stared ahead sullenly and the old maid seemed to make tutting noises looking at Carlos, obviously disapproving of his bullying.
“Yes, I done like theese keeds,” He told us in a not very subtle whisper. Waving at the marihuana cap.”You godda work for a leeving no leeve off mama and papa and smoke fuckin´drug.”
We didn’t really agree with Carlos, but we were too polite to say more. I smiled at Marihuana and jerked my head sideways at Carlos rolling my eyes. Carlos didn´t notice as he was busy telling Jim how to make money. The lad smiled back.
We were quite high up now, the minibus climbing steadily along the hairpin road. The limestone rock face towered above us like cathedral walls.I looked up nervously. It all seemed in imminent danger of falling on top of us.
“Not long to go now,” said Jim “Nearly there..” The sun sparkled on the frozen waves of snow all around us. I began to look forward to arriving.
Then it happened.
It seemed like loud gunfire as a rock hurtled down from high above and crashed into the minibus windscreen. It broke through, shattering the glass and landed straight onto the driver. I saw in a moment his head cracked open like a walnut. I had no time to register any sensation, as a second rock, the size of an elephant, bounced onto the road, crunched up on the front of the bus and pushed it off into space. We slid down the mountainside, the bus crashing and bouncing off rocks, like a giant ungainly toboggan, until suddenly it jerked to a shuddering stop, caught between two vast boulders on a narrow ledge above a ravine .
There was a deathly silence. Then I heard the sound of muttering and someone saying something. The cabin of the bus was crushed in, and was now the shape of a violin: dented and pushed in on both sides. We hardly had room to move. Jim was lying next to me , pale, with blood trickling from his nose. Unconscious. Absurdly, it went through my mind, that Jim wasn’t dead, as someone had told me if the blood was still flowing it meant that the heart was still pumping.
But we were in a bad way. It was Carlos who was making the noise and the old cleaning lady who was muttering prayers at the end of the bus with her hands clasped together.
Carlos was shouting something in Spanish and struggling to open the door. He couldn´t. Marihuana boy (whose name I discovered later was Jose) was saying something to him and tugging at his sleeve,
Carlos pulled his arm free and spat back at Jose. Later Jose was telling me that he tried to stop Carlos from wrenching at the door, totally crushed and useless, trying to reassure him. “, Help will come sir,” he had said .
“I´ve got to get back to my wife: she´s got to forgive me.” Carlos replied hoarsely, spittle flecked round his mouth.)
Jose had a reason for keeping Carlos under control. The minibus was rocking up and down, and looked as though it would slide off the rock ledge and hurtle down the ravine. I remember giggling stupidly as I thought of the Superman film where the bus is hanging over the bridge, was it the Golden Gate? And then of course he flies down and rescues everybody.
Then I sobered up. Things were not good. In our minibus, One man was probably dead, another was badly hurt,and another was a nervous wreck. And the bus was about to fall down a precipice. The cleaner was still praying.
As I lay there in the twisted wreck of the minius I remembered the advice that had come in a unit in a teaching English book. “Survivors”. Counselling to people in desperate accidents. The example was based on an event which had happened in the Andes: a plane had crashed into the mountain but the passengers survived, buried under the snow, they were eventually rescued. “Don´t do anything rash, just take one small step at a time: that’s how you can eat an elephant, take small bites. Don´t panic. You´re still alive! Breathe, breathe.”
That was the message to survive. Carlos hadn´t heard the Andes advice and was now panicking, trying to push his way through the shattered windscreen, bloodying himself as he shoved and scraped his hands on the glass. He fell with a thud on the snow outside. The bus shifted dangerously, rocking up and down. If it fell over the edge there was no hope for us: from the edge the mountain dropped away in a cliff for about a thousand feet. The only hope was to stay still and move up to the front to keep the weight on the narrow ledge.
Take small bites, breathe breathe, you´re still alive. Don´t panic. Help will come. Keep still.
Jose, the marihuana boy, seemed to understand. Together we hauled Jim slowly towards the front of the bus. He was conscious, now moaning. The praying cleaner inched forward on her knees and sat in the driver seat under instructions from Jose. Then we all hunkered down huddled awkwardly as far as we could, up the front. The driver´s dead body lay halfway out of the windscreen. His weight helped us keep the balance up the front.
Carlos had realised he wasn’t going anywhere. With his smart green and white ski suit now in tatters he tried to climb back into the bus. We gingerly tried to grab him but he screamed in agony as his wrists cut into the shards of glass. He was now getting weaker with the cold and loss of blood. Jose later told me that he´d encouraged Carlos to keep down next to the side of the bus.”Stay still sir by the bus, help will come.”
But it didn’t come right away. The weather got worse and snow was falling. The van shuddered and shook in the strong wind whining round us ,encircling us. In harmony with the vehicle we shivered and shook. I fell into an uneasy exhausted doze, dreaming of an ugly little creature peering in at the window. The face changed to the village idiot wagging his finger, mocking and burbling saliva at us .
Breathe slowly, small steps. You will survive. Take small bites.
At 6 o’clock in a cold morning the weather cleared, and the old cleaner suddenly said “Escucha !” (listen!).
A helicopter had arrived to rescue us. It hovered over the inert frozen body of Carlos. But we were saved, shivering in the minibus . The elephant was eaten. Carlos never did get the forgiveness of his wife.