I’m on top of the rock, just beneath the crest. Here the steep slopes that face West and overlook the town below give way to the sheer cliffs that characterise the Eastern face. I am at altitude and it is dark – black dark. I am perched on one of the narrow laneways that have somehow been eked out up here and I am bent over, bracing myself against the torrential rain and high winds that feel strong enough to blow me off my feet and to my death below.
I am not of a nervous disposition but this feels dangerous – the sodden and lofty views of the lights of La Linea and Algeciras across the bay a constant reminder of dizzying altitude and my precipitous position in this maelstrom.
Fortunately, I have an excellent pair of hiking boots equal to the task of protecting my feet from the several centimetres of cold water that teem over every surface around me, providing me with the reassurance of a good foothold, and an expensive and extremely weather-proof coat to shelter me from the worst of the storm.
Less fortunately, said items are back in the apartment in Tarifa. Tonight, instead, I am sporting a pair of smart but decidely permeable brogues and a three piece suit – a rather dapper one if I might say so, with purple silk lining and a fine grey-blue pattern.
I’ve chosen a tie dotted with purple polkas to go with the lining, and I find a waistcoat effectively conceals any inadequacies one might be experiencing in the waist and belly departments.
Still, all is not lost – I am not alone up here, my companion a young Englishman who works as an accountant in the insurance sector, named Craig.
And Craig has an umbrella.
He is also rather well turned out in a dinner jacket and black tie but there’s no denying it – neither of us is adequately attired for the occasion. My trousers are very wet. Enough of what we’re wearing though; what on earth, you might very reasonably ask, are we doing?
As bizarre as the above description might seem, take away the altitude and the extreme weather and you might begin to get it – it is in fact a perfectly commonplace scenario that is replicated each and every day, not just here but all over Britain.
That’s right – we’re waiting for a bus.
By the time it arrives we are soaked through but nevertheless grateful. It has to be said though that I am torn between my gratitude and outright shock that anyone would have the nerve, the audacity, the lack of awareness to drive a minibus up here in these conditions.
I am apprehensive – to say the least – that I must now get into the thing to make the steep, zig-zag descent. From behind and above us the others (K and forty or so well dressed accountants) begin to file down to the little convoy of vans. In the minute or so that it takes them to reach us they too are soaked.
Our collective demeanour is influenced by the fact that we have spent the evening in a dining room built right at the top of the rock – offering spectacular and panoramic views for miles around. There has been karaoke and we have been drinking, heavily. The alcohol takes the edge off the ridiculously unsafe journey down, as does a round of “Ging Gang Gooly” and a couple of “The Wheels of the Bus Go Round and Round…”.
We make it down somehow, and back in the dry and warm hotel room it occurs to me that I have never been at a more memorable company Christmas bash. It had a lot in common for me, in fact, with Gibraltar itself; a bubble of strangeness that has little in common with anything in the immediate vicinity.
Unlike Gibraltar though it was a light-hearted affair. Wandering around town the following morning and leafing through some tourist bumph on the history of the place one is struck by a sense of (constant) siege, of defence, of difference.
As interesting as it is to visit, I do not want our new life in Tarifa to be a Gibraltar – an enclave, and a bastion against the indigenous population. We need a rock, but not to perch upon in isolation. We need a rock to lash ourselves to in the storm that is our present and our future. We need new certainties. We need new tools. Tomorrow we meet Maria, our new Spanish teacher…