When I lived in Ibiza there was an American gay man, in his fifties, who, when he used to come on holiday, would visit the restaurant where I worked, usually on his first night after arrival. Every time he came in for a drink, on that first night, he would cry, weeping silently into his beer as he stood there at the bar in his tight shorts, the hair on his head cropped close, his t-shirt sprayed across his broad chest.
‘I’m ok,’ he would assure us, the tears running down his face, ‘I’m just so…. so happy to be here again. It’s nothing, it’s just the city, the stress of the city….’
Once he had cried away the stress of the city he was fine, and free to enjoy the rest of his holiday. On arrival in Soria last week on my long-awaited Easter holiday, I was concerned that I may start doing the same, bursting into babyish tears when faced with the desired and longed-for countryside. It has seemed like a personal insult to all of us workers that Easter, due to a pagan system of calculation, has come right at the end of April this year, condemning us to almost four months of hard work without a single bank holiday or saint’s day. I mean, why come and live in Spain in that case? Might as well get a job in the UK!
On my visits to the pueblo I am always struck initially by sensory overload: the smells of cut grass, clean air, flowers, woodsmoke, the brackish smell of the nearby river, the brown embrace of fresh manure on the allotments, the scent of mud and crushed leaves. Instead of the growl and honk of traffic, the underground scream of the metro and blaring radios, grating voices, yowling sirens, tinny mobile tones and pulsating Reggaeton, I hear hooting cuckoos, tweeting finches, the sharp cry of crows, and the tinkling of mountain water. Above our heads, in the place of the city’s circling helicopters there are revolving vultures, silent and watchful, and at evening the flitter of bats flying in and out of the local church belfry, as if fulfilling the cliché purely to make us happy.
After Angel has collected us from Soria station and driven us over the hills, past the churning white wind farms, the solitary plaster dinosaur on the hillside, and the striped snow-poles by the side of the road, we are taken to their new home in another village, and treated to a lengthy lunch. The house is the epitome of shabby chic- crooked beams, spiders’ webs festooning the eaves like christmas decorations, an ancient iron stove in the kitchen, rickety furniture, faded lace curtains at the windows, and dusty stone floors. Downstairs in the laundry room one of the dogs (Grace’s daughter) has given birth to puppies, who are gently pulled out of their wooden den to be held, shut-eyed and wriggling, whimpering, their tiny paws clenching and unclenching, while mother looks on with suspicion and sagging tits. The other dog, a puppy who had been brought into the bar last year supposedly to die, after having somehow ingested forty pebbles, and was nursed back to life by Pili, who fed it pureed vegetables, olive oil and porridge until it expelled the stones, has now grown into a forty-five kilo hound who leaps up playfully and grasps your forearm in her massive jaws, almost knocking you to the ground. Aside from the inventive and entirely delicious food, some of it vegetarian in honour of my mother, there is a mysterious pot bubbling on the stove that Pili stirs occasionally.
‘Wild boar tongue,’ she informs us, and the family laugh heartily at my Mum’s horrified exrpesssion. Apparently the hound has become an efficient hunter, and had killed this boar in the mountains a few days ago. Making himself a sandwich with some mottled luncheon meat, Angel Jnr informs us that he is tucking into ‘pressed wild boar head.’ Like Italians, we stuff ourselves implausibly full with antipasti, sweet roasted red peppers dripping with olive oil, crisply fried langoustines wrapped in threads of crunchy potato, anchovies smothered in fresh garlic, and smooth white goat’s cheese.
The bar is no more: after a year of hard work, long days when only one or two customers would come in, busy holiday seasons but little else, they proposed paying less on the lease and opening only at weekends, but like most new-fangled concepts in the village, this was turned down by the owner, so they decided to leave hostelry and concentrate on the important business of living well and working less. Consequently, the latest plan is to cultivate organic vegetables to sell to friends and acqaintances in Madrid, with the eventual aim of also buying some livestock, chickens and sheep, maybe even a cow, so they can sell eggs, milk, chickens, and make cheese.
‘Bloody Hell, it really is Tom and Barbara.’ I tell them, and resolve to search Amazon for ‘The Good Life,’ though I can’t imagine it dubbed into Spanish.
The afternoon is spent on a roundabout trip to show us the new allotment, involving several rambling detours, including helping a visiting friend move house. A sofa, fridge-freezer, boxes of tools, kitchen appliances and standard lamps are passed from the back of a van into the arms of willing teenagers, stray friends, busy-looking men and Pili. My mother and I are gently shifted to one side, and occasionally handed a random curtain pole to take inside while the boys struggle past, laden down with the mens’ work. It is flattering and somehow endearing to be treated with kid gloves like this, as visiting tourists or perhaps dainty British ladies. The one moving house is a tall and beautiful man with delicate wrists, floppy hair, and a handsome, neanderthall face made more attractive by a brutal scar cutting across his thick lips and chin. Unfortunately he has a wife is in Madrid just about to give birth.
After the move there is an encounter with the village alcoholic.
‘Martini time, look at that.’ Angel nudges me in the ribs as we pass an old man in a deck chair clutching a cubata. He sits at the terrace to the ‘albergue’, flanked by a pot-bellied Vietnamese pig, a donkey, a friendly black and white sheepdog, and a small bay pony. The man sees me stroking the pony and staggers to his feet, three sheets to the wind. He walks sideways to talk to me, mumbling, and I don’t understand a thing he says.
‘Restraining order out on him, his wife, he used to beat her up, poor cow. The order includes the instruction not to drink.’ Pili whispers as we pass. ‘He hasn’t had a drink for a year. The albergue is the only place in the village that will serve him any booze. She won’t be happy about that.’
The allotment is a bucolic slice of heaven on earth. Overlooking it on one side is the old castle, in front the ridged face of the mountains, on the other side the romanesque remains of the old church on the hilside. Angel Jnr starts to till with the rotivator, furrowing dusty, sand-coloured topsoil into a display of rich, clay-brown earth. Pili starts to dig an irrigation channel from the well at the top of the field, Angel carries beams over to the tumble-down shed at the far corner, which he is to repair and build a roof for. Juan Carlos trundles the wheelbarrow backwards and forwards with baby plants, strawberries, carrots, aubergines, and seed potatoes. The sides of the plot are stacked with chopped trees and bundles of firewood, plants and branches they have cleared already from the wild patch of land. The sun glares at their bent backs, and the vultures circle silently. It all seems so perfect. But within very little time the shell of the rotivator cracks and breaks. Stormclouds gather overhead; the forecast was for heavy rains and storms.
‘We have to finish this before it breaks.’ Pili tells us, sweating into her overalls. Before the sky cracks and weeps. It’s nothing, it’s fine, it’s just the countryside, the countryside….