Night times were when she felt most alone. It being mid August and the harvest being mostly in, the village fiesta was in full swing. All of the inhabitants had organized themselves (mostly along the lines of age) into what they called peñas — an informal mix of social club and gastronomic society. The peñas were hosted in not-so-meticulously tidied-up old barns, bodegas, garages and sheds. Amid the dust, straw, cobwebs and pigeon droppings, a rough bar counter would be set up, bunting hung and crates, boxes and old unwanted furniture arranged, lending a peña it seemed to her the air of a children’s tree house. Members would organize a kitty with which enough food and drink to last for the fiesta‘s two weeks would be purchased. Then, every night after supper the members would gather in the peña and spend until the early hours of the morning in an intense revel.
She didn’t enjoy Alvaro’s peña. She questioned the need as she saw it for grown adults to slum it among the dirt and debris of a dank cellar and socialise in such down-at-heel circumstances. It reminded her of her first experiences with alcohol as a teenager, when she and her friends had no option but to drink in the open or under railway bridges or in abandoned factories — bush drinking they called it.
“They’re not that poor that they can’t go to a bar or restaurant,” she complained to Alvaro.
His peña was also stuffy to the point of being asphyxiating and deafeningly noisy, with people screaming to be heard above the thumping reggaeton. Between her lack of Spanish and everyone else’s half-remembered secondary school English, the only person in the peña with whom she could effectively communicate was Alvaro. She got the message early on that he didn’t appreciate her hanging off him while he caught up with his old friends and that neither was he prepared to act as her translator as she attempted smalltalk with people. She found herself standing on her own and drowning her alienation and boredom in drink. After Alvaro had to almost carry her home on the third night of their holiday, she stopped going. While he partied, she sat watching television with his aged aunt and whoever else didn’t feel like attending their peña on any given night. Even on the nights Tara stayed awake reading until two in the morning, she was always in deep slumber by the time Alvaro collapsed into bed beside her.
She took to going for long walks in the mornings when there was a freshness to the air and the sun’s glare wasn’t quite so draining. She felt self-conscious moving through the village itself, especially crossing the plaza, where the knots of old men would halt their staccato conversations and she could feel their eyes boring into her (was she the only foreigner to ever have visited the village?), so her ramblings took her instead along the dusty tracks that divided the huge wheatfields. Even though there was very little to distinguish one chosen route from another, there was no risk of her getting lost: the village’s twin towers — a rocket-like cistern and the church’s dilapidated brick and cut-stone spire — were visible for miles around.
One morning arriving back from her walk, one of Alvaro’s uncles, a tall and imposing man in his seventies who always wore a straw hat, smiled mischievously at her and beckoned her over.
“You like gol?” she thought she heard him say in English.
“Gol?” she asked, frowning.
“Gol!” He mimed holding a club and hitting a ball, squinting up into the blue sky to follow the arc of its imaginary flight.
“Ah, golf,” she said and laughed. Her father was a golf nut. She had graduated from caddying for him as a pre-teen to becoming under his tutelage a pretty decent junior golfer, but now only played the odd round with him on long weekends home.
“Ven, ven,” said the uncle and set off down the farmyard, scattering a dozen or so chickens who were picking at the dry ground. “I love gol’!” he exclaimed over his shoulder as she struggled to catch up.
At the far end of the yard, beyond a small grove of fruit trees — fig, almond, cherry, quince and pomegranate — he stopped and pointed. There were three pitch-and-putt-scale greens mown into the yellowed grass. Each had a home-made flagpole marking the hole and was surrounded by a couple of irregular, shallow bunkers. He pointed to a gate that led to what had recently become a stubble field and made himself be understood that there were a further six holes beyond it. When he handed her a sand wedge, a tee and a ball, it was the beginning of the conversion of her holiday in the village into a golfing holiday. That morning, she and the hearty old man pitched and putted until they were called in for dinner shortly before three o’clock. The next morning when she returned from her walk he was waiting for her with a nine iron dangling playfully from the crook of his elbow and a gleam in his eye. Again they played through until dinner. The day after that, she forsook her walk to help him mow and water the greens and trim the rough and what she had difficulty conceptualising as the fairways — scorched and sparse mixtures of brittle wild grasses, chamomile, fennel and mallow.
As they strolled from tee to green or one of them measured up a put or smilingly went to retrieve a ball from a hole, the old man would speak in a slow, considered tone. Very soon she had learned the Spanish golfing lexicon and was bandying phrases back and forth with him. Every now and then they would take a break and sit in the cool shade of the largest of the fig trees. They would drink water from a canteen he had hanging from a branch and he would cut open a watermelon with an ancient penknife and hand her with relish a huge, dripping sector. As they sat and sucked the flesh from the rind he would point out objects and say their name in Spanish. Árbol for tree, sandía for watermelon, cielo for sky. If she pronounced these badly he would correct her and when she got them right issue a pleased and encouraging muy bien — very good.