When you think of sanctuary it’s in slices of jamon, wrapped in wax paper. Bollos out of the oven steaming the thin plastic bag they are kept in. A vanity table with a silver hairbrush, a heavy glass of perfume with an antique diffuser, and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Peeled potatoes, a kitchen table, an armchair. The waves in their endless undulation.
You step off a plane at 11am and the air is different. You left behind the darkness and the drizzle. Now it’s dry and warm, your winter clothes layered between the grime of your skin from the flight. You are greeted at the airport. Your decisions were flattened between the pages of your book and slipped down the aisle as you made your landing, to be picked up gradually on your return. But that’s not a thought for now.
You arrive home. What was your home but still home. You take up more space in the hallway than when you were ten and dreamed of life beyond the border. Your father excitedly shows you the bathroom renovation. You shower and dry yourself in towels that are always fluffier, cleaner, better smelling than the ones you do yourself back in London. The domestic magic of Gibraltarian mothers and their laundry secrets.
You are handed tea, toast, chocolate, and a parade from end to end of the dining room table of hams and cheeses.
Come niño, que está mu delgao.
No tiene’ hambre?
The fridge always full. The television on to news from Telecinco, all the things you miss when you’re in London. The fresh bed in an old room. Time ticks differently here.
In your teenaged years you visit your grandparents for the same craving of a stable routine. You know they wake up and turn on the television and make up the breakfast table. That your grandmother cleans the house and makes lunch while your grandfather goes from on end of Main Street to the other with the precise amount in his pocket for all his recaos. That your grandmother can spend an hour hanging out of the window between her geranios talking to a neighbour about the firmness of the sandía she bought at the market.
You visit after school, and your grandmother sets the table just for you, with white linen embroidered with flowers from the drawer reserved for special household things. The best china teacup against the tetrabrik of milk. She teaches you to slice a block of cheddar thickly and add it to a digestive spread with strawberry jam. If you time it just right, she’ll send you to the shop in Varyl Begg for warm bollitos y un cuarto jamon york. Y mucha, mucha manteca. They sit in their separate armchairs and watch you eat, asking you about your school day as they compete against the television, an afternoon programme de salseo whose volume is never lowered.
Your other grandfather dips his bollo into his mug of tea. You see the soggy crumbs floating on the top, and the glistening film of melted butter separated from the milk. What he loves most of all is a good cake de merengue del Okay. On a Sunday after a car trip and lunch at the Chino in Puerto Duquesa, you visit them with a tray of cakes and a pan de pelayo bought from someone’s front room in the mountains of Manilva.
While your family is piled into the living room with the telenovela that also is never turned down, you walk through the house that feels so tightly packed in with your roots. Jesus peers at your from every wall. You wonder what it feels like to have that much faith in the order of things, to not feel the weight of judgement but instead a liberation, that a higher being is always there to look out for you. That the plea for daily bread will always be answered.
In the summer, you visit your parents by the sea in Chullera. The long stretch of Mediterranean never changing in its landscape, if you look towards the water. You’ve watched the sun rise and sun set here for years. There is a comfort in this insignificance. This was all here before you. The water rushing through from the Atlantic to fill in the gap. Phoenicians in their to and fro across the sea. Your problems, your issues, a speck of sand on this beach. One day you’ll be gone and this beach will remain.
You watch the parade of boats carrying La Virgen del Carmen. Prayers of sanctuary for coming storms. Someone throws a rose into the water. Your feet against the waves, hoping some of the holiness rubs off on the uncertainty of your life ahead.
But life is never still. Fathers die. Grandparents die. Places are sold. You pass your old house and wonder who lives there now, and if they dream in any way the same dreams. If their fridge is full. If their sheets are fresh. You give thanks that despite this year of restlessness, your own fridge is full and your own sheets are fresh. You’ve built a house of your own, and small relics of those sanctuaries are on your shelves. Your grandfather’s Bible. Your father’s pocket watch. Postcards pressed between books, written in old ink.
Your father once told you he would visit his grandmother in Humphreys. She would give him a coin and send him out for sliced jamon york from the shop by Alameda. The memory of that care alive in you now through an passing anecdote, even in the silence of a cemetery where all the characters now sleep.
You’ve taken refuge in friends and loved ones when your family has been far away or gone. You gain new family. Christmas mornings where you have woken up to someone else making lunch. The coffee your husband leaves on the bedside table each morning. The sofa in a house in Cardiff, where you sleep and find space. You wake up to breakfast you didn’t cook. Biscuits and gravy in the mountains of rural Virginia. You yield to the care of others. You drop your sword and shield.
You’ve been thinking about the sea. This year has left you grounded in the concrete of what feels like an increasingly uncaring city. You pass an Italian deli on the way home each day and you wonder if their jamon is wrapped up in wax paper, with a thin plastic bag of warm bollos. But no. Everything is a premium here. Calculated and marketed like your childhood was an exotic dream of social aspiration. You wonder if the shop is still there in Varyl Begg, if the queue for being served continues with ‘quién va último?’. You check Google Maps often, in the night with the shine of your screen on your face replicating a poor version of the sun. You hope the beach remains the same. You imagine the waves moving. The salt in the air. The wash of pebbles on the shore. You think of home.
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