I should be running down by the water this morning, or at least walking faster, but I just have to slow down to look around. Everything is exceptional today – a great mixed sky like an oil painting, the cloud cover overhead breaking up in the east where the sun rises and graduating westward to a dull gloom which hangs low over the water, the whole sweep of it culminating in a funnel about a kilometre out where rainfall engulfs a short line of fishing vessels and their orange-buoyed nets.
Up past the sports field the spring flowers have gone to seed and their vibrant yellows and purples are beginning to recede into the dustier, dry grass hues of high summer. It’s very early and very quiet – quiet enough to hear the fish break surface in the river and for a few rabbits to linger in the open. A long-legged spider crosses the wooden walkway, pausing as I pass.
I go as far as the old military bunker and then cut across onto the sand. About two kilometres up the coast, the rock promontory of San Bartolome is lit up in a pin point shaft of sunlight that cantilevers its way in over an adjacent hilltop and illuminates the cliffs with precision. The sea is almost as calm as the river today, lazy waves yawning and sighing their way in and out over the sand. A few footprints, a few paw prints, the island like a surfaced submarine, the mountains of Morocco behind it; it’s a clear day and I can see deep into them.
This is a place that makes you feel lucky and the few people out here this morning say hello with a conspiratorial smile as if we are sharing a treasure. We are. Mountains on three sides and only the straight line of the open sea on the fourth, the coast at Tarifa is a contradictory space; despite the vastness of scale – the two seas, the two continents – it feels hidden away somehow in a Shangri-la isolation.
The fishing fleet has fanned out toward shore, away from the rain that chases them. From my left, as I return along the waterline, the low gold of a just risen sun shoots across the sand and makes it sparkle, illuminating the breakwater and glinting off the hull of one of the boats – a bright, bobbing light against a dark, sullen sky.
When I reach the moss-covered rocks I cut back across the sand – a long trudge through the drier powder toward the paseo. The rain has come ashore but it doesn’t make me walk any faster – the soft spray cools my face as I ascend the steps that flank the bullring and walk through town to the house. Then it’s into the shower and a pot of coffee afterwards and the beginning of another working day.
Another working, daunting day. Time on my hands and plenty to do, no idea where to start. I make what seems like piecemeal progress with this, with that, more steps taken in the long trudge, but no breakthroughs again today, no watersheds or personal, punch-the-air victories. I’ll have to wait for those, I suppose. Earn them. A couple of new students, possibly. It’s something.
K gets back in the evening and I tell her I’ve cancelled our Spanish class – I need to get out of the house. We walk into town with a cheap meal in mind; she feels like pizza and there’s a new Italian place we can try. We know they need the custom because they’ve been handing flyers out around town like nobody’s business but today they’re closed.
We go down to the Alameda to try the Italian there but I feel self-conscious about eating on the terraces now, since I’m more often than not trying to ply my trade just opposite. Today two of the other vendors have set out their stalls and wave hello to me and the prospect of taking a table in view of them suddenly seems ridiculous. I don’t quite fit in with them; they all make and sell jewellery and leather goods. I wouldn’t want to stereotype anyone but the word ‘hippy’ does seem rather appropriate. Now that the season is hotting up, they turn up en masse at the weekends with kids in tow and picnic lunches. I can just picture them all living in a geodesic pod somewhere and having meetings about how the organic tomatoes aren’t organic enough. Swapping granola anecdotes or whatever it is these people do.
It doesn’t mean they aren’t nice. They are nice – I consider them colleagues now and I don’t want to eat where they work. We head back through the arch into the old town, past the covered market in search of options, the most obvious being Sergio’s, Tarifa’s nicest Italian if a touch more expensive. It’s at the other end of the town, and it’s closed. Doubling back on ourselves we do a walk-by at Bar Frances, another favourite spot. It’s too full and K is showing some early signs of irritability.
“Fuck this shit,” she says.
“Come on.” I take her by the hand and we walk up and out into the new town. The old town is going to be a bit of a circus between now and the end of the tourist season in September and I just want a simple meal. I have two options in mind – the scary-old-man-bar on a corner of the main street that we haven’t eaten in or the little neighbourhood bar around the corner from our house that’s been closed for a while but has apparently opened back up. Since the latter is indeed open and has a free table outside we end up there. It’s in a little square that would be difficult to find even if, for some unfathomable reason, you were looking for it and when I say square, don’t be thinking fancy – the bar is one of a number of premises in a purpose-built row out the back of a newish development. It’s basically a place for people to leave their cars. K gets a plate of fried eggs and fried potatoes and I tuck into a couple of quails.
A couple of quails in a local taberna – I mean, come on. It’s like something out of Don Quixote. Even with the Renault Clio parked up against our wobbly table and the stray cats fighting at our feet it all seems impossibly picturesque to me. My mood has improved and I order more wine to celebrate. In the end a frustrating day has turned into a lovely evening, another revelation. We remember, as the sun sets, to feel lucky, in the mundane Shangri-la of this little square. That notwithstanding the innumerable frustrations and the vastness of the challenges we have set ourselves, we are sharing a treasure here.Follow @RobinJGraham