We go to dinner at L’s apartment in one of the soviet-style blocks down by the water and as usual there are another few people for us to meet. As we climb the stairs to his second floor flat we find ourselves doing so with his son and his son’s girlfriend and once inside we are introduced to A, a woman of Argentine origin who now lives in El Puerto de Santa Maria – about an hour away – and who struggles, as we do, to make small talk as the others huddle in the kitchen preparing the food.
In his text message, L boasted that the dish on offer tonight had a five hundred year pedigree, billing the dinner as “una cena andalusi”. In fact there are two “platos” and I never clarify which one he was referring to – some tabouleh with herbs, apples and raisins and an andaluz salad I have read about and attempted myself but never tasted in anyone else’s home, a plate of orange slices, olives and bacalao, along with more raisins and potato wedges.
The latter is carried in by P – who is always here – on two plates while B, a Swiss woman who lives in Tarifa with her Spanish partner and who speaks tarifeño Spanish like a sailor, brings in the tabouleh and the meal is underway. We always like coming and tonight I’m glad to be here even though there are good days and bad days as far as my Spanish is concerned and I find myself slipping in and out of comprehension and a little frustrated with myself at times. I do pick up that A is some kind of music therapist and when the conversation turns to the food, or to Morocco, or to Al Andaluz I follow well but frequently I just look at K and take her by the hand, smiling the conspiratorial smile of the uncomprehending. Sometimes she is with me and sometimes not, smiling back benevolently; I speak more than she does these days but exposed to unselfconscious, full-speed Spanish, understand less.
L picks at his guitar for a while as we chat after dinner and afterwards he gives us a few minutes of the mandolin, but the music doesn’t really take off and I find myself at that stage of an evening when thumbs twiddle and an early exit beckons. L has been whispering to A and all of a sudden disappears into the hallway, returning with a pen drive which she sticks into the mp3 player, firing up an aria I am unfamiliar with. She takes a breath – closing her eyes – and when she releases it the night is transformed.
Her strong, clear soprano fills the little flat. At first, of course, we’re a little uneasy; it doesn’t feel quite right to be sung to like this in a living room. She’s giving it her all, eyes remaining shut, hands everywhere, lurching now and then with emotion. But as her voice warms up through something, I believe, from The Marriage of Figaro, the effect is an exquisite contradiction – both thrilling and soporific. We sit back in our seats and I can see the same silly grin on everyone else’s face that I can feel on my own as her voice curls around us and escapes through the wide open window into a blue night – hot and silent – that feels like the first of summer.
Up until this moment we’ve had – through no one’s fault but our own – one of the dullest days of our lives, cowering indoors from the levante, tapping away at laptops, hardly a word spoken. Indeed this whole year has felt like a schlepp. Very little in the way of great bounding leaps forward, a mere smattering of drama, barely a sprinkling of adventure and almost no daring-do at all – it’s been a year of loss and near loss, of grown-up talk and tax returns, pet-related worries and money-related resignation, all the time hacking away at a book that may well be read, at some point in the distant future, by precisely no one.
L, though, usually has a surprise or two up his sleeve and tonight it’s this – an impromptu opera performance in his front room. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to describe myself as utterly transported, though that might have something to do with the enhanced cigarette we pass between us at the window. As one aria comes to an end and just before A – by request – launches into Nessun Dorma, a voice can be heard from outside and L leans out into the darkness to talk with the source, a neighbour from one of the flats that, because of a corner in the building, has a window facing ours.
The neighbour, who it turns out is Argentinian himself, has been leaning out and listening, enchanted. As A sings again there is no doubt in my mind that the other residents are doing the same thing, sitting near open windows and wondering at this rare circumstance that pierces through the boredom of Saturday night sports fixtures and game shows on TV. When she finishes there’s a knock at the door; he has come round to thank her for lifting his evening – our evening – out of the humdrum and he has brought her a single bloom. I instantly admire him; there’s as much beauty in the offering of the flower as there was in the music that prompted it.
The gesture reminds me that even if we aren’t always as sure as he is who we should be grateful to, things go better for us when we are mindful of what we are grateful for – a simple meal, a dark sky over the waves, the fern forest that shades the rocky arroyo we walk along the next day – a sweet reward at the end of another schlepp. Getting into the sea when K gets in from work. Sitting in the warmth of a night, a couple of squid on the parrilla, a glass of wine and each other.