It was an ugly village, probably the ugliest place Tara had ever been. She had been expecting the typical Spanish village portrayed in travel guides: gleaming-white huddles of houses topped by terra cotta tiles, balconies spilling bougainvillea onto narrow, twisting streets, charming outdoor cafes, ancient fountains, a whiff of Moorish exoticism — not this higgledy-piggledy eyesore; a half dozen streets of brown–grey ruins, looking as haphazard and unwelcoming as a colony of termite mounds. The houses were mostly of naked adobe. Some had been crudely repaired, with cracks in the adobe filled with a flaking, grey cement even more unappealing to the eye than sunbaked mud. Roof tiles had been replaced by asbestos and original windows and doors by incongruous aluminium. Even an old convent, the village’s only candidate for a tourist attraction, had been blackguarded in this manner and, to add insult to injury, was used for storing grain. The whole place had a Third World air to it and resembled a television news war zone — somewhere Middle Eastern like Syria or Libya or even Afghanistan. She had referred to it as “Abu Ghraib” over the phone to her mother.
She wouldn’t have minded however much of an eyesore the place might have been if it had been beside the sea, but the village was about as inland as you could get on the Iberian Peninsula. She had never been so far from the sea. Instead of being surrounded by water as her own home place was, the village was smothered in a tawny, featureless blanket of wheat. The landscape, while not quite a Euclidian plane, was convincingly close, and was treeless and parched. It brought to mind the Cromwellian general who had described the west of Ireland as not having enough water to drown a man, trees to hang him or soil to bury him.
And there was nothing to do. She’d essentially been abandoned by her boyfriend, Alvaro. A pattern had been set since they had arrived for their two week holiday. She would rise early — never after nine o’clock — shower, breakfast and whittle away the time reading or attempting to communicate with his family, while he would sleep until mid-afternoon, when the aroma of his mother’s cooking would charm him from the bed. Dinner with his family would go on for hours, with her being nothing more than a bystander in their impenetrable conversations and leaving her wishing that she had put more effort into learning Spanish — something that had been on her list of New Year’s resolutions for two years running. The passage of time weighed even more heavily on her owing to the fact Alvaro’s mother and aunts, who also shared the family’s rambling farmhouse, wouldn’t let her lift a finger, not even to rinse a cup or hang a towel on the washing line. This trio of bustling, plump and top-heavy late middle-aged women had allowed her to see an aspect of Alvaro that she hadn’t been aware of in over a year’s cohabitation in Dublin. He accepted being waited on hand and foot with an indifference and sense of entitlement that she found worrying and his tetchiness towards them and disdainful ordering of them around brought to mind that dreaded M-word — macho — that she had heretofore looked for but not found in him.
After dinner was visiting time, when she and Alvaro would either call to the houses of a seemingly inexhaustible list of uncles, aunts, cousins of varying orders or family friends, or these would be received in the family home. She would patiently smile and nod at shrunken and gap-toothed widows wrapped, in spite of August’s cruel heat, in heavy black shawls. She kissed their ancient-seeming cheeks as Alvaro did and was surprised by softness of their yellow skin. She accepted the delicacies they offered — freshly picked figs, jamón, chorizo or cinnamon-flavoured pastries — and made as many credible-seeming facial expressions of appreciative gustation as she could manage under their expectant scrutiny. The men, less often widowed, had rough hands and dark complexions from lives spent working the land, made what she thought were gentle jokes at Alvaro’s expense and offered her cigarettes and alcoholic drinks — ranging from the local wine, thick and heady, to what she could only describe as poteen. It was as if the men had ideas about the preferences of a young, blonde northern European woman, probably gleaned from their holidays in Mediterranean resorts or the dreadful, sexist Spanish films from the ’60s and ’70s that were all that Alvaro’s father seemed to watch on TV.
“Don’t drink so much agua ardiente the next time,” rebuked Alvaro after they had spent over an hour in the cool dark kitchen of a jolly, weathered great uncle who had fed her glass after glass of the harsh spirit. She had stumbled after emerging into the blazing heat and brightness of the street. “There’ll be talk. Women aren’t supposed to drink here.”
“I’ll drink as much as I like,” she answered.