Up in the scrub of the bird sanctuary, the little wooden bridge has been listing for a couple of years and now wobbles, worryingly, over a whorl of fish in the river below it – a great tumult of watery life, the odd flash of silver belly glints in the writhing green murk.
Out over the Atlantic it’s getting brighter and the clouds have dipped beneath the full moon, cupping it as they fan outwards and upwards in either direction like a jewelled insignia. On the opposite horizon the sun hangs low like a hunter, its light predatory on the long, back lit grass as night flees.
Straight down the slatted walkway, its tip not quite clear of the black Rif mountains, the lighthouse on the island blinks. I’m sweating under my hat and warm jacket and I pick up the pace, on my way back to the first coffee of the day.
Later, up where the bus pulls out of town, opposite Lidl and arranged around the roundabout, a clutter of tattered hoardings hawk property for sale or rent. One of them has been there since I arrived three years ago and features an artist’s impression of a development that has never been built. The ground around them is strewn with rubble and litter and behind them the concrete training tower for the fire service seems to list a little itself. All in all it’s the ugliest little corner of town but you can still see the Strait and Morocco from here and a young man in a baseball cap and a leather jacket has chosen this spot to find Mecca; he’s up on the verge, prostrate in prayer.
I’m not in my usual seat because it’s taken. A Scandinavian language emanates from it and although I don’t want to turn and look, others do. We could all tell they were trouble as soon as we saw them at the station: one of them lurching about clumsily and the other dressed in surfer gear and a multi-coloured cardigan, the requisite tussled blond hair, but framing an ancient leathery face. Whether it’s Norwegian we’re all listening to or Swedish, it’s slurred, and there’s a smell coming from the bottle they’re sharing that seems like turpentine to me.
It’s a relief to reach my stop because they seem so unpredictable – constantly changing seats and roaring incoherently – and as I pass by the younger one at the back door I’m struck by the lighter in his hand and how he clings to it as if it’s both an essential tool and a security item. I wonder how much more, if anything, there is to his life than a bottle of something to drink and a way to light a cigarette, and whether he’ll live much longer and what, if anything, he’ll leave behind him.
I’m walking more. K comes with me sometimes, at the weekends. We’ve just been up to Castillo de Castellar, an old fortified town that overlooks a glimmering reservoir and a swathe of forested wilderness about fifty minutes from here. It’s a castle but also a pueblo blanco – a little “boutiquey” these days perhaps, with its cutesy galleries and craft shops, but undeniably beautiful, and we walked away from it a little, downhill and into the forest where one of our little parque natural maps indicated the presence of some pre-Roman tombs I wanted to have a look at.
K had a bottle of water and a bag of sandwiches with her and when we found the tombs, after an hour or so of tramping over dry leaves in the still summery wood, we sat down to eat. They are body-sized grooves carved into the solid rock and there are three of them: two of them aligned head-to-toe and full-sized and a smaller one between them and perpendicular: the makings of a sad story if ever I saw one. It was noon; when I stood my shadow followed the line of the adult graves exactly and I felt sure that they’d been carved out there to face the sun.
And there they remain. They face the castle too, though that didn’t exist – and nor did the Arab culture that built it – when the tombs had occupants. They are shallow and I speculated that the bodies had been put there and left exposed, for raptors and wildlife to take care of the flesh. All long gone now, but not those three hollow imprints.
The following morning I get out of the house a little later, so it’s daylight and although I’m supposed to be on a fitness kick I swap my power walk in the sanctuary for a stroll through the old town and out to the island. I see a bit less of the waterside and the port nowadays and there have been changes; as I pass Santa Catalina – they call it a castle but it’s just some rich guy’s house, built in the early 20th century and now abandoned – I hear building work going on inside. The place has been derelict for years; it sits on a height and can be seen from afar, and despite its overblown and somewhat silly “moorish” style, has become an emblem of Tarifa.
I wonder what they can be doing, and also what the steel structure they’ve erected at the edge of the sand is going to be. They’re beginning to clad it and I suppose it might be a chiringuito. I’m not sure if I approve of its two storey height, down here where it interrupts the view of the sea and the Tangier coastline.
The causeway out to the island has been lined with minimalist, concrete benches and a catamaran bobs on the quiet water of the bay. Fishing trawlers leave and return to the pier. Dogs clamber happily over the rocks, down at the water’s edge.
When I get back to the mainland I ask an old guy if he knows what the noise is that’s coming from Santa Catalina. He doesn’t, but it doesn’t stop him speculating or dragging a passerby into the conversation. Neither of them knows, is the upshot, but it takes them an awfully long time to admit it.
They’ll both have seen more changes around here than I have – the evolving footprint of the town: a building pulled down here, a new one there, a road, a roundabout, each new generation – and these two will have seen a few – leaving its own mark.
On the way down here I passed by a traditional old house and the front door was open. In the little passageway that led to the inner patio there were some old photos of the town as it had been fifty years ago, and eighty, and a hundred. It had been much smaller of course, and having stepped in to look at the pictures for a moment, I now know that where I stop and talk to the two old men was nothing but sand – no whale-watching visitor centre, no unemployment office, no fish restaurants.
Some of the structures in the photos are still here and some aren’t. Plenty of new ones have sprung up to take their turn in the lottery; that two of the survivors are the robust 10th century castle and the silly house on the hill undermines any sense of predictability we might have about a thing’s longevity. Still, I’m drawn to the idea of having a shot myself, of leaving something behind, and head home to the first coffee of the day, and to work.