In Plaza Mina, any little irregularity in the promenades cups a vestige of the water that a rising sun will soon suck up. Smoother surfaces are smeared with a fine film of it, in sweeps and swathes as if somebody has been at them with a mop.
It hasn’t rained. The place has been hosed down by the orange clad operatives of the municipality – nocturnals that keep it clean, locked into tit-for-tat with the diurnals that dirty it.
We stroll beneath a miscellany of species – Date Palms and Banana Trees, Bunyas, Peruvian Peppers, Yucas, Cabbage Trees, Elms and Screwpines – and above us the upper branches, of the palms especially, squawk with the raucous birdsong of monk parakeets: bright green birds that delight the eyes and terrorize their fellow avians. From top to bottom – from the airborne exotics to the wrought iron grille of the benches and the monstrous roots of a Moreton Bay fig tree – the square is testimony. A story is told in the light that filters through the potpourri of plant breeds and dapples the stone paseos, the tables on their terraces, the old kiosk. It speaks of a great, enriching influx from a New World, of plants and parakeets and money.
In the grid of the old town, away from the squares, the x of each intersection is replicated on the vertical axis and the eye as it looks down any street is presented with the same symmetry – the wanderer is constantly drawn towards a vanishing point flanked by town house façades in pretty pastels, seeming taller than their three stories due to the high ceilinged elegance of their 18th century design. Overhead, the deep V of the sky and underfoot, the slender A of a straight, receding street. Unlike Andalusia’s other cities – Córdoba, Granada, Jerez – this place doesn’t look a bit like it was built by Syrians or Berbers. It’s more Salzburg than Seville.
The city is a solar compass. As the sun scoops slowly around the dome of the sky, shadows add accent to the street plan – straight lines subjected to sliding nuance, blacknesses that steepen into the afternoon, becoming long and low later on. So, depending on which way you turn, you find yourself walking into near darkness, chilly on a March morning, or into the high contrast of a street split down its middle by sun and shade. Walking into the sun, the eyes need a raised hand to soften the blow and the cobbles – worn to a shine – reflect the solar blaze, making it seem as if the street is paved in light.
It all sparkles – droplets everywhere, puddles and pools. The smell of water and wet soil in the square. Sunday best. It’s quiet, still – we find just the one place open for some breakfast and they are just setting up. In this part of the world, even bakeries wait till mid-morning to open. Soon though, the streets will be populated by gaditanos, also in their finery, out to promenade before and after church. It’s the first day of Holy Week; we’ll catch sight of a tiny procession as we leave town, on the gentle gradient of Calle Rosario – musical tribute to a much older story than the square’s. A spiritual matter for some of course but for many who love it no less, the lulling sway of a procession croons of stability, continuity, certainty.
In the car as we drive the length of the Costa de la Luz to Tarifa, we don’t say much. We’ve enjoyed the city as we always do and are somewhat sated – content to sit in near silence and slither home on the snaking N340, recalling the previous day.
Smart food at Sopranis and La Candela and the obligatory aperitif at La Manzanilla. Later, al tapeo – a palo cortado in the mercado central, ibericos in Casa Lazo where the dueño informs us that although we’ll wait till May for the levantas of the almadraba, the very best tuna is already coming in. We wander into La Viña, a shall-we-say unpretentious neighborhood where we need to squeeze past a street fight on a narrow lane. It speaks of the rarity of this kind of thing in Andalusia that the three participants themselves seem thoroughly surprised to be involved, alternating their slaps with shrugs of astonished indignation. Nobody appears to be getting hurt.
Tortillitas de camarones in El Faro and chicharrones in Manteca. Nightcaps in the Pópulo, out on the terraces since it’s mild. Even without the brandy, I think I’d be feeling woozy. Our conversation is romantic but not carefree. Though we’re not here often we recognise some of the other customers outside the bar we tend to favour for our last of the night, in particular a gay couple who seem to have been here every time we have. Today, one of them – turned out flamboyantly in spats and a linen suit – is brandishing a walking stick and seems to struggle on his way to and from the bathroom. A change.
We talk of our own changes – positive ones, on the face of it. We are certainly lucky in health at the time of writing. K’s career is flying. I’m finishing a book it’s taken me five years to write. And yet, it’s change – it makes you anxious and also partially explains our quietness in the car. Nerves. It’s double edged in a way I can’t quite describe.
Obligingly, the weather maps it out for me as we near home and drive out of the sun into a thick marine layer which then, though it doesn’t thin, becomes patchy as we go from murk to light, murk to light.
Of the two, the murk seems the friendlier – a cool blanket that covers the world, kind on the eyes and soft on the skin. The terrain undulates, but here and there where the fog hovers over a flat field in tufts, it looks like rising vapours. It seems quieter. The sunlight when it catches us by surprise seems bleak in comparison. I find myself embroiled in comic, Beckettian permutations of eyewear – removing my sunglasses because it’s too dark under the marine layer only to be dazzled when we emerge into the light and I need to put them on again. When they come off, my other glasses go on, addressing my myopia and meaning that in the next patch of sun I see what I otherwise would probably have missed – the tiniest of birds, flapping its one good wing on the hard asphalt.
It flails toward the centre line as we drive back into the fog, then out again for one last time to loll about in a garden with a beer below rock cliffs. But it stays with me, spiking the pleasure of the afternoon like a drop of bitters in a Manhattan. If it isn’t granted the mercy of a tyre it will still be there as we soak up the sun and listen to the tinkle of cowbells, the trickle of a mountain stream. It will flap furiously, all feathers and fear, till it exhausts itself on the warm tar and waits, giving in at last, running out of breath and panic, listening to the roar and rush of the traffic – the oblivious lullaby of a world that is finished with it.
All of this at the same time, always. The whole story – shadows that give awful accent to the plans we make. The straight lines of our lives subjected to sickly, sliding nuance. Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, said Rilke, with that boundless German optimism of his. He nailed it, as usual, although for the purposes of maintaining get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning levels of hope, I do sometimes prefer to turn the observation on its head.