The neighbourhood between the academia, where I’ve just finished work, and the bus stop where I wait each day for a ride back to Tarifa, is anything but picturesque. It has precisely nothing of the rustic charm that draws visitors to Andalucia, except perhaps an authentic dash of the chaotic, permission-free approach to town planning that created the medinas and pueblos blancos in the middle ages and continues to bash out the odd barrio today.
The pavements are in the kind of condition that could keep a thousand solicitors in work were this an anglo-saxon country, and that’s where there are pavements. There’s a chemist, a stationer, a few bars and a small family-run supermarket and butcher. I take a street that leads uphill toward the main road and the bus stop and pass a kindergarten and a kitchen showroom, opposite a hostal that advertises beds and showers. You’d have to wonder who would find their way to a hostal in a neighbourhood like this. The kind of person who requires assurance that it contains showers, I suppose.
It’s a quiet time of day – just a few people here and there sitting on the kerb or on their doorsteps – but there is the repetitive clanging of someone at work. As I walk toward a white van parked up on the left the noise gets louder – I can’t see the source because the back doors are open and blocking my view but I do notice a large pile of dung behind it. I’m pretty sure it’s horse dung; it has that grassy texture to it and also, standing above it and tended by a tiny but cocky looking young boy, is a horse.
And because I’m passing by now I can see the back of the van, and the man standing on the street between the doors, banging away at a horseshoe on an honest-to-god anvil, and I can hear the distinctive roar of blue-flame gas somewhere behind him, obscured by his honest-to-god leather apron and I almost bump into a car as a I realise, gawping, that I’m looking at the first mobile farrier of my life. The middle ages in a Ford Transit.
Up at the road the ride I get is usually the bus, but not always. Today, P is there – a tarifeño K and I have given a lift to before and while we wait together, him regaling me with borderline incomprehensible one-liners, a car pulls in for him and he beckons for me to join him. The driver is a tarifeña and there’s another girl on the passenger side as P and I squeeze into the back next to the baby seat.
As we set off I’m somewhat reassured to see that his larger-than-life, belly laugh schtick isn’t an act he puts on for extranjeros; he keeps the girls in front thoroughly entertained as the driver hurtles dangerously toward Tarifa. I follow a little, but three tarifeños in conversation would challenge the average Spaniard so soon enough I tune out and look across the strait at Jebel Musa. Almost every day of my life I get to look at this and it never gets old.
In October, the ride home marks the end of each day as night begins to drop her veil. The African coast is golden and as the three of them chatter, a half moon sits high overhead in the cooler blue, haughty and irrelevant above a blush of clouds fanned out like recumbent flames, their underbellies still caught by the already sunken sun. P nudges me.
The road twists here and begins the descent into Tarifa and the other coast – the Atlantic – comes into view. The sky above it is ablaze, the orb below the horizon but not its last light; not even this salty tarifeño in his paint-spattered overalls is immune, can ever really get used to the spectacle that surrounds him every day. Perhaps because it’s never the same.
They’re a singular bunch, the people of this beautiful and formerly isolated little town at the bottom of Europe. Our growing circle of friends around here has tended to consist, for whatever reason, of people from Madrid, Extremadura, Algeciras or Cádiz; the locals themselves we tend to have ‘encountered’ more than befriended – the man with the lazy eye who sells us our ham, the neighbours on the right who regularly keep us awake with flamenco dirges, the clap-clap, clap-clap-clap of dance practice from the apartment block behind us, the civil old gentleman and his sleepy, cranky brother who ran our corner shop and then retired, the almost hostile and unshaven young men who used to run the shop across the way and now run the kiosk about ten metres away, the dour women who’ve replaced them in the shop.
The following day as I’m shuffling down the aisle of the bus I’m slapped on the arm and startled out of my headphone reverie – it’s A, the neighbour on the left. A policeman, once or twice a week he goes to Algeciras to study psychology but I’ve never bumped into him on the bus before. Thirty-five minutes will be the longest conversation I’ll ever have had with him. He’s quite an intense chap and I’m one of those people who gets uncomfortable around the police in spite of my quiet, lawful life, so I’m intimidated at first, but we do ok. We talk of Scolymus maculatis, the wild asparagus that grows around here, and Ziziphus zizyphus, a strange little fruit that looks like an olive and tastes like an apple.
On Saturday, as we walk through the backyard of the old slaughterhouse where we go to feed the cats, the old man is there again. A short-sleeved shirt in the Cuban style, a face like the surface of the moon, the smoking stub of a cigar, he sits in the little room he must rent here or have been given, surrounded by wings and song. Canaries, budgerigars, finches – the walls of his little shack are lined with neatly arranged cages.
I never know what to think. He’s a nice man; his enjoyment of and devotion to his birds is evident, but I don’t like to see creatures born for flight in captivity. I feel sorry for them but I can’t say I’m sure how sorry to feel. What do they know? Can they miss what they’ve never had? Their little individual cages are too small but we all live in cages I suppose, even if we gilt them. P and A and I, we carry ours around. They are the limits of our understanding, the lockdown of our individual perspectives even if, once in a while, we are astonished – and momentarily freed – by the views between the bars.