Anyone could see that there were a lot of us at home. Someone had to go. I was the fifth of six children – Mother used to say I was there because God had wanted me to be there and you have to take what He sends you. The eldest was Maria, who, more than Mother, ran the house. Josep was the son and heir and Joan was going into the church. We three youngest were told a hundred times that we were more of a burden than a blessing. These weren’t years of plenty, there were a lot of mouths to feed and not much land, which of course left a hole. So it was decided that I, who was level-headed and even-tempered, would be sent to help my mother’s sister, Tia. She’d given up hope of having children but wasn’t short of work. She had married a man much older than her who owned land, at least half a dozen cows, poultry and rabbits, as well as a vegetable garden. They got by well enough, but they could do with an extra pair of hands and with the company because they were starting to feel their age. I was thirteen when, with a bundle of clothes in my arms, my father on my left and Maria on my right, I left my family, home, village and mountain. It was just a few kilometres between Ermita and Pallarès, but it meant a day’s walk and losing sight of home. At the time, this hurt me more than anything else. As I walked away, I left the only world I had ever known behind.
We walked in silence to the market at Montsent, where my father and Maria were going to pick up some things for home and hand me over to my aunt and uncle. On the way, all that I could think of were the good things about my village. I had never left except to take the animals up the mountain in spring to graze or to sneak off to the Festa Major held every year by the four houses which made up the next village. There were a lot of people and not much to eat at those festivals.
I remember the three winters I went to school. Unless you had older sisters to do all the work at home, you didn’t go to school if you were a girl. How lucky to be one of the youngest! The teacher made us write in big round letters with little ticks at the end. The r started with a curl on the left that I thought looked like a corkscrew. At school we were never cold because Doña Paquita wasn’t going to bow to the meanness of our families – she insisted on a good pile of wood every week for the classroom because she said letters only go in when they’re warmed up a little, and if anyone wants you to learn anything then they need to show a bit of good will. She said it in Spanish – poner un poco de buena voluntad. The little I know, I learnt in Spanish. I have forgotten most of it. I was amazed the first few times she spoke, this teacher of ours who came from outside. No one understood her. Eventually we did, and she understood us when we talked too, although I don’t know why she pretended not to. Maybe she was ashamed of understanding us, or did it out of spite.
I still remember those winter classes as if I was in one this morning. I always sat with Magdalena. Whenever she was supposed to read aloud I couldn’t help laughing and Magdalena would stop reading. Doña Paquita would then push back her glasses and glare at me like a sergeant major. I’d get a stomach ache from trying not to laugh when Magdalena started to read again and I’d often feel a little warm drop of pee in my knickers.
I liked going to school. It was special and made me feel being small was good. At home you were just a nuisance. If you played in the haystack, you were making a mess. If you went too close to the fire and clattered he saucepans, you’d caused God knows what kind of calamity. If you picked up a stone or piece of wood to play, you were going to hit someone with it. You were only safe if you were helping to do the milking, peeling potatoes, or carrying firewood. That was being grown-up, but you weren’t allowed to have a sip of wine from the porró or any bacon after you’d done your work, because for that you weren’t grown-up enough.