Some fuss at the front of an apartment building as the bus sets out for La Linea through Algeciras city centre. One of those unassuming if not quite unattractive pale redbrick efforts – six or eight storeys, double recessed balconies on the street side and the obligatory green and striped awnings hanging low over the railings which because of the recess protrude just two or three feet from the façade. A block of a building – we lived in one just like it in Madrid – I will have passed it by many times and never given it a moment’s thought.
Today the front entrance is cordoned off with police tape and a few policia local are in attendance. Some stand with hands on hips or arms folded and others talk on their radios, surrounded by a small crowd – just twenty or so – of neighbours. Several people are deploying the video-making function of their smartphones or making calls themselves, their necks craned upwards. A bus-full of necks, mine included, also crane to follow their line of sight.
For four stories above them the awnings have been damaged, knocked from their hinges to dangle dangerously overhead. I instinctively look to the ground to see what might have done the damage and sure enough, a significant amount of rubble lies at the little crowd’s feet. Looking up again establishes that the rubble used to be the protruding few feet of both adjoining balconies on the fifth floor. Where they should be is an open scar – a few pot plants teeter on the recessed portions of the ex-balconies. One of the firemen is being edged toward the building in a hydraulic platform to retrieve them.
It would seem from the fairly relaxed body language of the spectators that tragedy has been avoided here – that nobody was unfortunate enough to be on their balcony when it collapsed. Still…
We all sit back in our seats and when the bus pulls into the station in La Linea, I walk into the centre to meet K at our hostal. It isn’t a town we’d pick for an overnight but the car is being serviced today and tomorrow and it’s easier for K to hang around than it would be to get back to Tarifa and then back into work using public transport and although the town has little to recommend it in the way of tourist attractions, we do find a couple of very good bars.
It also gives K a chance to meet and socialise with a colleague of hers – there are changes afoot in her working life and she has decisions to make about her future. About our future, I suppose. It’s all a little uncertain and she’s feeling understandably nervous about what is nevertheless an opportunity. We drink and talk things over and enjoy ourselves in a town we’d never have added to a ‘must see’ list. La Linea is Spain’s Tijuana – a border town with all that that entails – drugs, crime and so on.
In the morning K takes her hangover across the border to work and I take mine back to Tarifa. While changing bus at Algeciras I note that they have locked the previously free wifi in the station, so I content myself with A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’ story of love and revolution, change and upheaval on a human scale.
In a little village called El Cuartón, in the mountains between Algeciras and Tarifa, a black Mercedes has been left on the forecourt of the petrol station. There is no sign of the driver and just as well, given the state of the car; the bonnet is open and the engine is on fire – a real inferno that threatens to engulf the rest of the vehicle. It’s at a respectable distance from the pumps so nobody appears to be panicking. On the contrary, I can see a customer paying for their petrol in the shop and a few others getting on with their business. No one is paying the slightest bit of attention to the burning car; it gives the scene an eerie, funereal quality as the bus sweeps past.
The following morning, I am in bed, dreaming. It isn’t a happy dream – K and I are arguing and she is coming up the stairs after me, shouting my name. Then I wake with a start – K has come up the stairs and is shouting my name. As is my way on awakening, I mutter something incomprehensible but that definitely has a question mark at the end of it.
“I need your help,” she replies, accustomed to my pre-coffee language difficulties. “Lily has a dead bird in the house.”
I go down and we search for the dead bird. Neither of the cats has it by the time we get down there but we can’t find where they’ve left it. Between the unsettling dream and the grisly search I’m not in the best of form. We snap and bicker our way round the downstairs and out the back on the patio and in the shed. Nothing.
“Maybe it flew away.”
“But it was dead. It wasn’t moving and it was squished.”
Dead or not, I think to myself, the thing is gone; either that or we will smell it soon. The day passes by and no strange odours materialise. I gradually calm down and cheer up and the following day the wind kicks in. Tarifa is in for a fierce week of strong levante. The windows are howling and unattended doors slam continuously. The gardens are filling with windblown debris – newspapers, fish heads and dust. The cats have gone mental; at any given moment they can be found on top of something tall, refusing to come down. They’ll be poor company for what promises to be a thoroughly indoor week, cabin fever rising as the wind batters the little town, gusts like body blows against the house, nerves on end, heckles up. In such a week I find it’s best not to set too much store in signs and portents