Friday March 10th 2013
I suppose this is a strange time to start writing a diary….
(I’ve just never seen the point before. Why do people feel the need to record the things that happen to them? If you need to remember something, you will.)
But it’s so quiet here, so unearthly quiet…. If I write maybe I’ll be able to hear the words as they hit the page. It’ll be like having company.
I guess I should start by saying something about my surroundings…
I’m in the Caldera de Mejada, which is about as far south-east as it’s possible to go in Spain without falling off the end. I must be in the exact middle of the caldera here, sitting on the dry, desert ground at the end of the hiking trail. ‘Fin de sendero’ announces the green and yellow Andalucian tourist board sign opposite me. ‘End of the path’. A red line wiggles through a map, shows walkers the eight hard kilometres of ups, downs and zig-zags they’ve just covered through this restless landscape of stony paths, uneven stones, sandy soil, cacti and hundreds of plants with sharp outlines and no flowers. ‘Caldera’ means cauldron in Spanish. I learnt that just the other day, even though I’ve lived here for years. I’ve always assumed it meant ‘collapsed land’ because that’s what it looks like and that’s what it is. It’s not hard to imagine, millions of years ago, just after a volcano ripped this land apart, the disturbed earth having to find a place, settle somewhere, fill the voids and paper over the cracks. The result is this landscape of unlikely slopes, rough planes meeting and then falling away, strange angles. Geography in motion. An unfinished work by an indecisive sculptor.
The hard soil is warm on the back of my legs and occasionally something flickers at the corner of my eye, a butterfly or perhaps a lizard darting under rocks, making no sound. The silence is absolute, the isolation perfect. You could easily imagine that no other feet have trodden this path, no other lungs breathed the air.
If you’re a certain type of person there’s no greater high.
‘Just imagine,’ my ex-husband, Jake, said when we came here twenty-five years ago, ‘we’ll never get to the moon or visit Mars but at least we can walk this timeless cosmic drama!’
Timeless, cosmic drama. That’s what he actually said.
We were living in a car-park at the time in an old camper-van we’d bought for two hundred pounds. We’d left our jobs in England to move here. Jake’s idea. He’d always had dreams about the ‘simple life’ and going ‘back to nature’. We were young then, newly married. Everything was an adventure.
We started happy. The village nearby was a magnet for European alternative types, ‘EATs’, I called them. Everyone lived in a van or a squat. Everyone had dropped out. Everyone had dreams. Dilapidated, abandoned villas had become impromptu communes where there was always cheap wine, no-strings, drugs, parties, people around who wanted to talk, cook up schemes, think, create. It didn’t matter that no one spoke each other’s language, after a few joints you sort of knew the gist, and you didn’t need words to swim or drum or wander into the rocky scrub landscape to collect stones or meditate or write. Easy highs, no alarm clocks, friendly people, what more could you want? This is the question I asked myself every morning, and every morning I had to say to myself ‘Nothing. There’s obviously something wrong with me.’ The sunshine gave me headaches, I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t get used to there never being anything to eat but always EATs dancing on the beach, never anything to do but always someone saying it was great to chill. ‘Stop being so uptight, Sally,’ Jake would say. ‘Can’t you see how lucky we are?’
We came here to the caldera for a walk one day. I guess we were trying to remember what it was like to enjoy each other’s company, get the adventure back. But if I remember rightly, no sooner had we arrived than we were ploughing our new default positions: Jake – sullen and half-stoned, me – reproachful and homesick. When we got to the end of the hiking-trail we just carried on, not talking but not feeling like stopping either. There are so many twists and turns in caldera landscape, it’s easy to imagine that there’s always somewhere higher, somewhere further, another corner to turn, from where you’ll get a sweeping view. It pulls you in, tempts you with more.
Eventually we stopped for lunch, sitting on a steep mound to eat jam sandwiches Jake had made out of stale rolls we’d cadged from a restaurant. I remember the hard crusts on the bread, the oversweet, cheap jam, wondering how long it would be before I got to enjoy a meal whose ingredients I’d bought myself rather than shoplifted or begged for, and whether this was a superficial thought to be having in a place so beautiful. I thought I should be making conversation but the only thing that sprang to mind was ‘that sandwich was awful, wasn’t it?’ and we’d already had one argument about how ‘negative’ I was being today.
The swish of tyres took us by surprise. A cyclist. Who would have thought that a bike could have covered those stony slopes? I looked up and the cyclist blocked the sun as he executed a perfect halt in front of us and shouted ‘bon appétit!’
The man had close-cropped grey hair and his face was so healthy and rosy, it looked like he’d stepped out of a leaflet about healthy eating. Tanned, toned limbs seemed to burst from cycling shorts and a purple T-shirt with the words “Never Give Up!” in bright yellow splashed on the front. Probably in his late fifties, I thought, surfing the second wind of healthiness and drive of the newly retired.
‘Beautiful, yes?’ he smiled, waving his hand around, taking it all in. ‘This is my first time here.’
I felt so stupidly pleased to see him, this product of the world outside, the world that was busy happening outside our campervan, miles away from the student party without end it felt my life had become, I just smiled, suddenly speechless. He must have thought he’d stumbled upon imbeciles.
‘Did you come from over there?’ Jake said, pointing behind us, the only direction he could have arrived from.
‘Where are you from, mate?’
‘Really? I went to Dieppe once.’
The sun glinted off the purple of the cyclist’s T-shirt. It was the most purplish purple I’d ever seen. “Never Give Up!” The words burned into me.
What would he have done if I’d pleaded with him to take me with him, I wondered. I imagined balancing on the handlebars of the bike, swooping upwards into the sky, leaving it all behind, the caldera getting smaller and smaller behind me.
‘See those brown plants there? Do you know, you can eat them?’ Jake said. ‘All you need to do is boil them with sugar. A bloke in a bar told me last night.’
Jake took another drag of the joint he’d just lit. Was it my imagination or had the man’s eyes stopped sparkling so much?
‘Well, I must continue….’ he said with the jolliness of a man who was going back to a shower, a hotel and, maybe in a week’s time, a plane home. ‘It was nice to meet you. Enjoy your walk and your, ah… brown plants.’
I watched the purplish purple of his back bounce up the slope in front of us. Take me back to a world where people have jobs, eat properly and don’t meet people in bars who tell you to boil up cactus with sugar.
‘Weirdo,’ Jake said.
‘He was nice.’
‘Want some of this?’ he waved the joint in front of me.
‘For God’s sake, Jake, no. I said no before.’
‘OK, OK…. For fuck’s sake.’
The man had disappeared now and all was silent. It was like it had all been an illusion.
‘Shall we go?’
It had turned overcast. Clouds had appeared, as they do sometimes in southern Spain, whipping up out of nowhere and hanging like a veil over the tops of the mountains.
‘Don’t you think that cyclist’s really brave?’ I said as we got up. ‘Cycling alone? We’re miles from anywhere. If something happened to him, how would he get help?’
‘Typical you,’ Jake said with a bitter laugh. ‘Focusing on the dark side.’
‘I’m just being realistic.’
We walked in silence. Not even a cricket or the flutter of a butterfly’s wings to break it.
It was half an hour later we found him. The French cyclist, lying on the ground, on his side as if just enjoying an afternoon siesta. Weirdly we could have believed that this was what he was doing, had his bike not been a twisted wreck next to him, its front wheel sticking out at ninety degrees. Just ahead a boulder lurked under a squat brown plant.
We ran to him, shook his shoulder. ‘Hello? Can you hear us?’
‘He’s breathing,’ Jake said, crouching down, listening to his chest. ‘You get help. I’ll stay here.’
A patch of blood was darkening the left side of the purple T-shirt.
‘But we came off the path. I don’t know where we are.’
‘What else can we do? Put him in a time-machine and make this un-happen?’
We attempted to lift but he was too heavy and what if we broke something?
‘I think we should get help together,’ I said. ‘Then we’ll be sure to find the way.’
‘We came from over there, remember? That’s where we ate lunch.’
Jake pointed but there was no steep mound. We both looked around. The gathering clouds had changed the light, the shapes had shifted.
In the man’s pocket there was a map, Jake grabbed it, held it up, frowned as he tried to make sense of it. I knew it was inappropriate but a thought flashed through me. How unattractive Jake’s become! That downturn of his mouth etched onto his face like a permanent cynical expression.
‘OK, we’ll both go,’ he put the map back. ‘We’ll mark our steps.’
We half-jogged, half-marched, sweating, not talking, me scribbling on a serviette. ‘Tree with partic. white bark’, ‘2 Evian bottles’, ‘poodle-shaped bush’.
When we arrived at the village, muddy-headed with thirst, hardly able to stand, it felt unreal, like a film-set. No one was there. The only phone-box didn’t work. I leapt over a gate, knocked at a door. ‘Hola! Seccorro!’ A dog barked but no one came. Another door. Another.
At last, an old man walking up the street with shopping bags, a baguette under his arm.
He just looked at me.
‘Un hombre…’ Shit! Where had my Spanish gone? I’d gone to night-classes before we’d come but as I pointed frantically at the mountains and the man stared at me, uncomprehending, I felt all the words I’d ever learnt trickle out of my hand like sand.
‘Un hombre,’ I said again. ‘Bicicleta. Only… not bicicleta.’ All the time I was aware of Jake staring at me, the downturned cynical look. Strange, during times of emergency, what other details seep in.
Somehow – God knows how – we managed to raise a police-car. A single sleepy guardia civil patrol-car snaking leisurely into the village from the main road.
‘Fuck, this is no good! We need stretchers! Oxygen!’ Jake said as the lone police-officer stepped out of the car and gave us the kind of look he probably saved for pissed-up Brits in resorts.
‘Tell him,’ Jake said.
‘You’re the one who speaks Spanish.’
‘If we send him back we’ll be here ages. Look, he’s got a radio. He’ll be able to send for help, a helicopter. Senor, follow, please!’
The policeman raised an eyebrow and looked highly surprised when I pointed towards the caldera.
‘Por favor! Now!’
He followed behind us, his shiny shoes slipping on the loose earth.
I took out the serviette. The words had run into each other. ‘Tree with partic white bark?’ All the trees looked the same. How had we not noticed there were loads of Evian bottles and poodle-shaped bushes?
There was no sign of a purple T-shirt, no twisted bike, no injured cyclist. It was as if he’d disappeared. The light started to fade. The policeman took out a torch.
‘I can’t believe you’re lighting a joint in front of a policeman,’ I hissed at Jake.
‘It helps me concentrate,’ Jake said. ‘Unlike your fucking language skills. I told you one of us should have stayed!’
‘What about your brilliant ability to read maps? The situation would have been done and dusted if you’d known where we were.’
The policeman stood watching us bicker.
‘Can you call for a helicopter, mate?’ Jake said.
The policeman shot a weary look at the joint, kicked some bushes, shone his torch around, then turned his back, started to walk back the way we’d come.
‘But you can’t just go!’
The policeman strode ahead. We followed his beam, Jake shouting ‘hola!’, ‘bonjour!’
We went back the next day, and the day after that. But we never found the cyclist.
‘He probably came round and walked out himself,’ I said a week later.
I looked in the local newspapers every day for a month. My Spanish might have been hazy but I knew the words for ‘cyclist’, ‘dead’ and ‘in the caldera’. There was nothing.
We came back to England not long afterwards. Jake said I hadn’t given Spain a chance, I said we shouldn’t have gone in the first place, Jake said that was typical of the way I looked on the dark side all the time, I said he should grow up.
I hoped that we’d somehow be able to put it behind us, slip back into our old lives. But ours was a marriage interrupted, a stream that someone had poured boulders into, spilling the water, diverting the flow. Jake didn’t take up his old job even though they offered it to him, preferring to stay at home all day, watching TV. By the time I realised his dope habit was a Problem rather than a problem, and that he needed help, I was too busy to care.
We never talked about the cyclist but he was always there, silently moving through everything we did. For a time it seemed as if Jake did everything he could to avoid thinking about it, while I got busy making it all the more vivid. I enrolled in Spanish nightclasses again and quickly became fluent, although this was mainly down to sleeping with the Spanish teacher. When the inevitable divorce came, the affair was the reason.
It seemed the easiest thing to do with my new language skills was to take a summer job on the Costa del Sol. I suppose I wanted to prove that life could be an adventure again and I didn’t focus on dark things. This time I stayed in Spain. Somehow, in time, I drifted to the south-east, back towards the caldera. I suppose places can become states of mind, and the thing about calderas is there are so many twists and turns, it’s easy to imagine that there’s always somewhere higher, somewhere further, another corner to turn, from where you’ll get a more sweeping view.
I’ve had my own cafe in the village for years now. ‘Sal’s’. A typical English tea-shop. It’s a wonder how quickly, after a few days in the sun, people from Manchester and London get nostalgic for a decent cup of tea.
The sun’s getting lower now. In half an hour it’ll have dipped below the mountain, the whole caldera will be plunged into sudden shade. At first it’ll be pleasant respite from the heat. Then it’ll start to cool. It’ll be too dark to write so I’ll have to stop. I reach for my bag because I think there’s a cardigan in there but it’s lying where it dropped when I fell, under a bush just out of reach. I shift again and pain sears up my leg although my foot’s completely numb now. I suppose I was lucky to fall in a spot where I could shuffle my way onto even ground, sit up. ‘Hello!’ I yell. At first I think I hear someone yelling back but it’s just an echo. In this late afternoon light the mountains above look like jagged teeth, the bunches of scrub like hollow eyes. I check my mobile. Still no signal.
Why didn’t we try to work out where the top of the caldera was, I suddenly think? All those years ago. A purple T-shirt would have been easy to see from above. That’s what we should have done.
The ache is dulling now but I feel sleepy. I have to say, I’ve quite enjoyed writing my first diary entry. It’s taken my mind off the pain, given me something to do. It’s also made me think…. Maybe people record the things that happen to them, not only to help them remember, but also so that they can forget.
The sun has nearly disappeared altogether now and there’s a faint hiss of breeze, the first pinpricks of cold on my bare arms. “Never Give Up!” I think as on the board, ‘Fin de Sendero’, then just ‘Fin’, slides into shade.
Friday March 10th 2013