“You’d have a shit life,” says K, leafing through one of those magazines of hers in a deck chair out by the kidney-shaped pool, “without me.”
Strong words, but I believe she has me on this one. I give the proposition a moment’s thought, just in case, but no – I’ve got nothing. Still, I like to give as good as I get and after a brief period of reflection I manage to deliver a retort I think I can live with.
“We’re going to need more wine.”
“We have two bottles,” she says, eyes on the page.
“We have one bottle.” It’s exhilarating to be a step ahead of her. “I used some for the chicken.”
She looks up.
“You used a whole bottle of wine for your chicken?”
I shrug, lacking a magazine of my own to hide behind.
“That’s coq-au-vin, I’m afraid.”
She returns to her portfolio of cranky, hungry young women teetering on heels in what I assume are circus costumes.
“You’re a coq-au-vin, I’m afraid.”
I pick up my book. That’s as maybe, I think to myself, but we are going to need more wine.
The aquamarine squiggle of the reservoir is far below us, hazy as the sun sets. On the other side, Zahara de la Sierra is crab-like as it clings to its tower-topped hill, just another pueblo blanco among so many out here in the Sierra de Grazalema; Algodonales is turning on its streetlamps to the north, a slender strip of fairy light on the slopes. The blue grey forms of successive mountain ridges are graduated in ultraviolet shadow and a tiny, tiny lizard clambers about over the blades of grass beneath my chair.
We sit and silently look out over it all while the light recedes and further along the water someone plays some dreadful music so loudly it fills the valley and quietly enrages us.
In the morning, an expedition for wine. El Gastor is twenty minutes downhill on foot, along a road that overlooks endless rolling country to the north. The obligatory clutch of old men has collected in the shade of a climbing vine as we walk into the village and down a steep and narrow street to the central plaza. On our way we ask a man about open shops; we’re doubtful because it’s Sunday but he tells us there are two – one directly behind us and the other round the corner. We note that the one we’re right outside is open till two and decide to return after we’ve had a coffee.
Down in the square, I order a fanta for K and a beer for myself. Someone has stitched together sheets of that green plastic netting you see on farms and in greenhouses – enough of them to make a canopy big enough to be hung from the little town hall, covering the square between it and a cafeteria across the way. The strong sun shines through green and people out after Sunday mass – men in their seasonal short sleeves and women seated separately – take their coffees and cañas to the hum of gossip in the cooling polyethylene light.
It’s peak season in the south of Spain and El Gastor, like so many mountain towns, has in recent decades tapped the tourist well. At this time on a Sunday though it’s village life on evidence in the square. And what a life: too easy to appreciate these places in two dimensions – the past literally whitewashed by modern manicuring. This was bandit country and they say El Tempranillo holed out here with his girlfriend, an El Gastor native, during the Peninsular war. In the country’s most recent conflict, the far-right Falange took the town and subjected it to severe repression. These are the little streets through which the body of Diego Corrientes, made a twentieth century bandit by the occupiers, was paraded on a mule and there are plenty of people in the square today, men and women, old enough to remember.
We saunter back past the shops and pick up some wine. And beer. And crisps.
Later we sit in the half-shade beneath a sun sail out by the pool. K is back in a magazine and I’m in and out, keeping an eye on dinner. The other guests have left and we have the place to ourselves. It’s as we like it – quiet. Not even the couple who run the place show themselves, which tantalises the curious K. They are young Germans with an infant and she wants to know their story. Eventually, as we are about to eat, they pass by our casita on their way out for the evening and she gets to grill them. They’ve been here two years, having come from Málaga where she worked in childcare and he cooked. They found this place – a big house and three bungalows – and took it. They say it’s been going well but that this year has been the worst.
After dinner we pull a couple of chairs up to the view and wonder about the details. How did they buy this place? Not on a cook’s wage. Did they come into money? Do they have an eye-watering mortgage? Will they make it?
We wonder because we wonder about our own future in Spain. Three years in there is still so much to be done, so much we still want. Risks to take, dreams to follow. So much that life could be but still isn’t.
There is no awful music tonight and the silence lulls as we pull a blanket over our legs and the stars come out. A mist is rising. By morning it will have covered our hillside in its grey cloak but for now we have the clear night sky and the valley. The distances reek of a time when this was frontier land, a swathe of strongholds resisting the Reconquista, now named for their location on what was the battleground between Christianity and Islam. Vejer de la Frontera down on the coast, Chiclana de la Frontera further along, then Jerez de la Frontera and Arcos de la Frontera and, north of here, Morón de la Frontera.
It isn’t that anymore. Apart from the odd burst of appalling pop, it couldn’t be more peaceful. With a little luck, the strife and turbulence that shaped these little towns is behind them just as, with a little more luck, we’ll be ready for any strife we have ahead of us. Life isn’t yet what it could be. It isn’t the fully realised dream. It isn’t the finished product. It isn’t enough. As the temperature drops and real black night closes in, however, I struggle beneath the dome of the stars to care all that much about what life isn’t.
Because it definitely isn’t shit.