In February, with a messy sky diffusing the dawn light, the horizontals of the beach are toothpaste stripes; the water’s blue is deep and cool and the powder that whips across the surface of the sand makes it flutter brightly. As the liners head out onto the ocean and the whitewater flashes its thousand teeth, the day looks like it tastes of mint.
I turn left, not right as I usually do, so instead of making my way through the long grasses of the bird sanctuary, I walk south along this very last bit of Spain’s Atlantic coast, towards the island. The morning is bright and blustery. The winds were strong overnight and the little square where the promenade widens out is an apocalyptic scene; see-saws and rowing machines poke out of the sand like relics of a former time.
The beachside bar that overcharges us for wine whenever we’re absent-minded enough to end up there won’t be overcharging anyone tonight – the makeshift roof of corrugated iron that covers its terrace has collapsed. A new chiringuito, not yet built but present in the form of the steel girders that have been driven deep into the sand to support it, sits next to the causeway. Its customers will enjoy enviable views – of the island itself, and the lighthouse and the Tangier coastline – and I imagine they’ll pay for them in pricey wine, but for anyone who chooses not to be one of its customers, it will be a carbuncle.
The causeway is long, maybe three hundred metres, and straight: a conical recession of black tarmac ahead of me in an asymmetrical world – to my right, the Atlantic is all fury, white water and the whip of the wind, the rocks that line the causeway and the island soaked in the waves that crash and fizz there, the air above them full of circling seagulls that dip and swoop, hoping to profit from the mess below.
To my left, the Mediterranean is almost mirror smooth, a gleaming boulevard of sun-on-water stretching all the way across the strait, from my feet to the black Moroccan mountains. No birds or noise, just the saint who overlooks the mouth of the harbour and the graffiti depiction of a defecating man on the wall that backs Tarifa’s tiny little family beach. At the end of the tarmac I turn around – the rest of the island serves these days as a detention centre for the brave souls who try to make it across the water in anything from tiny rowing boats to rubber dinghies.
The cool Atlantic spray on my left cheek now as the sweep of the town fills my view, I head back toward land. Past the obsolete military bunkers and Santa Catalina, an overblown old house of the twentieth century – abandoned now – that sits on a height at the very tip of Spain. Opposite, fishermen, wrapped up and huddled in their hut, are visible through the concrete slats of the port wall.
Past the port entrance and the whale-shaped whale museum and down to the ferry terminal and the ramparts of the castle, blessedly sunlit today and overlooking the little playground and confectionery kiosks that sit at the end of the alameda. Along the palm-shaded terrace of 18th century town houses, separated here and there by a fragment of the original city walls, and up through the two tiered squares that lead to the new town.
I haven’t done this whole circuit – down to the wild coast and the island, then past the harbour and back – for some time. It has become as much of a thought process for me as a physical route. When we came here we invested so much hope in the move and therefore of course into this little town that we found on Google Earth; I became familiar with the casco antiguo – its street plan and plazuelas, the old town houses, the ceramic facades and the renaissance church – long before my physical arrival. The very first time I laid eyes on the Puerta de Jerez (the mudejar archway that is the old town’s main entrance these days) it was already imbued with a significance that went way beyond physicality, or any associations with its history.
Whatever you want to call it – aspiration, adventure, ambition; whatever you want to call it, its name is desire. For me this town will always thrum and vibrate with the hum and heat of desire. Its streets are a pulsating mass of cognitive and emotional circuitry – visual triggers for my hopes and architectural frames for my dreams, a map of myself, like the ripples across a cerebrum. And it doesn’t particularly matter what the outcomes actually look like, whether we will end up here or in some corner of Granada, or Berlin, or Ballyvaughan, parenting or rearing chickens: this place right here, right now, will be the map of the journey.
I take a right on a quiet street and head up to the Batalla del Salado, the main drag, looking left down it at the Puerta de Jerez as I cross. This is the corner that El Convento occupies – an old convent refurbished as a small hotel with a walled garden. This year we’ll fill the place with family and friends, here to celebrate our marriage. Another adventure – it might as well be a christening, an anointing of the place that has come to mean so much to us, that meant so much even before we came.
But a wedding it will be, or a wedding of sorts – we will strip it of every formality: there will be no ceremony, no reception, no speeches or telegrams. None of any of that. Just some decent food on the grill, a September sky above us, a little music, a lot of wine and a gathering of loved ones. We will have it just as we are trying to live our life – our way, honestly and as devoid of pretension as we can manage.
Up behind the old convent and past the overflowing bins, I find myself in our own neighbourhood. Rows of houses, blocks of flats and the odd corner shop; it seems a world away from the spectacular coast, just five minutes away, but it’s as much a part of the emotional circuit. In the house I stand in front of the mirror to check out my patchy beard – my mind buzzing with Tarifa and all that it represents – and brush my teeth.