For protection from the brutal winds that blast the hills around Tarifa, the little homesteads that stud the slopes are invariably planted with something to surround them and take the brunt – some tall, bamboo-like grasses or a bank of prickly pear cactus. This evening these peripheries glow golden in the setting sun and so does the surrounding country as it descends from the high road to the shore below. I look down on it all from the bus window.
On the African coast Jebel Musa, Hercules’ southern pillar, peeks out from the murk of a marine layer and a few paltry tufts of cloud drift across the summit. Over Spanish soil the clouds are just as small and disparate but dirtier, full of rain. Above all that the sky is the tired blue of an ageing day. A lone vulture circles on this side of the strait – side to side and up and down through all the elements of the view, owning all of them. As it banks the sun catches its wings.
I’m on the bus because I’m back at work after a long and humid summer, but for all the mundane humdrummery of another working year, it does deliver this daily gift – the descent into the little pueblo that sits at Europe’s southernmost point, warmly lit by a yawning, westbound sun.
The winding mountain road straightens out as it slides toward the town and the vistas open up: the gleaming, endless Atlantic to my right, the Strait and Mediterranean to my left, Morocco dead ahead – I usually get a welcome text from Maroc Telecom about now, my eyes fixed on the little island that juts out toward that other continent, joined to this one by a slender causeway and adorned with a sturdy lighthouse and a Phoenician necropolis.
Septembers have been the same since we moved here. The same but different; our new Januaries, they usher in each year with daunting to-do lists, coupled with a sense of change and optimism. My first month here was a September and I was alone; K was back in Ireland filling boxes and working out her notice while I was charged with flat-hunting and starting my new job. Alone in a new country, that month was everything you’d expect it to be – it carved a notch at every point along the spectrum between thrilling and terrifying. Its successors have not been quite so dramatic, but the same tension, born of appetite for change on the one hand and fear of it on the other, arises like clockwork each Autumn as the beach season winds down and the tourists fade away.
For the first time this year, we failed to welcome the virgen and her procession as it filed through the Puerta de Jerez, the old mudejar entrance to the casco antiguo. We haven’t set foot in any of the casetas up at the recinta ferial this year. No fairground rides or junk food, no hooping rubber ducks at the patito stalls. We have other things on our minds and on our plates. Another side of Tarifa, and I suppose of life, has opened up to us a little.
K has been helping out at the local cat shelter and has roped me in. We go down each Saturday to where they’re cooped up, in what used to be the slaughterhouse, and muck them out and feed them. It isn’t pleasant – the makeshift space they have is inadequate in every respect – but it is good to get involved a little more in local life, to make some kind of contribution no matter how small. It has also incrementally increased the pie chart slice of our lives that we live in Spanish, and we have made new contacts, one of which has had an unforeseen consequence.
This summer, my attempts to sell my pictures down on the Alameda were stymied by the local police, but I’ve been busy and I now have product. I’ve spent the week mounting and framing images for display in Tarifa’s main exhibition space – the old refurbished royal prison where I’ve been invited to show my work alongside a trio of tarifeño artists, one of whom we met through the shelter.
So all of a sudden I’ve made some inroads, an important step forward in showcasing and selling my work. And, interestingly, it came of shovelling cat shit. As usual, I feel a little overwhelmed at the outset of my new year. The exhibition will keep me very busy for a week, rushing there each night when I finish at the academia, trying to figure out a pricing system and a work-flow so that I can take orders, if any are placed.
On top of that there’s A Lot Of Wind… and I really should be pitching more editors. Each day I eke out another little nugget of the book, perhaps as little as a hundred words, obsessed with the thing but unable to make it materialise any quicker. And, of course, the A Lot Of Wind… Big Secret that is almost upon us…
K will start her new job soon and that will bring changes for her, for us – I expect it will further focus the regular conversations we have about our future. The tone of them is evolving; we are less content to leave it at daydreaming, longing instead to pin things down. The usual suspects – what do we want? How do we get it? What will it look like?
The answer to the third question is becoming clearer, mostly through that process of elimination that is becoming older and crankier, increasingly impatient with the irritations, but also through the hopeful lens of our efforts, our tentative attempts to reinvent ourselves. The future is our homestead, our little patch of planet Earth, and these are our peripheries, the shoots of bamboo that once mature might take the brunt for us so that, when the wind blows, we can hunker down behind them and make our stand.