Thursday, May 17, 2012

Beneath the Cemetery

There is a green plain between the mountains, and a railway line. The train pushes through the clamouring paddles of cactus and great high grasses, following the river into the city. Static caravans rust among lemon groves. A gang of dogs, cartoonishly assorted, free somehow, have taken over a roofless farmhouse. I see them every day, barking unheeded orders to each other. No-one else looks out of the window. Beyond the glass, still new to me, are empty commuter villages.  Embankments thick with flowers. Doleful, tethered burros. A bronze statue of Christ on an eastern peak, arms outstretched for balance, his position never so precarious, even here.

Each morning I drive my Renault 4 (also available in white) down the mountain to the station, where the train sits humming like something from the next millennium. The garage by the level crossing where I bought the car, taxed and licensed, for 600 euros, is run by two brothers whose age cannot be determined with any certainty, though a rumour persists that they fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. Which would put them in their late eighties, at the youngest. I suppose it's the kind of thing you tell a foreigner. The two of them can often be seen roaring through the village on matching yellow trial bikes, their faces lined by age and speed and relentless sunshine. They grimace at me from beneath peaked helmets and miraculously dark hair as they buzz past. Smoking. Riding one-handed at 80 kilometres an hour on bad roads. Perhaps they are that old. Perhaps they're indestructible.

I spend my days in Malaga, trying to make myself understood. The labourers on site are Brazilian,or Francophone African. The skilled workers are from the Baltic states. There are even some Spaniards. Thankfully they all speak a little English, so we get by, particularly after an unhurried Andalusian lunch. There is something democratic about a hard hat and a hi-vis waistcoat. Everyone looks much the same in them, and everyone has to wear them, the millionaire developer from Madrid and the floorsweeper from Côte d'Ivoire. If we finish early I take a bus to the beach and sit there watching the sky change, until the flies chase me away, or night comes.

People talk on the train home. They have their own jobs to complain about, suppers and weekends to plan and disagreements with loved ones that are important while they're on the phone but will dissolve, in most cases, with the first touch at the doorstep. How were the kids today?

No-one is waiting for me, not in this country at least, so most evenings I stop for a drink in the station bar. The tap hasn't worked for weeks, so Francisco - Me llaman “Frank”! - pours me a beer from a small can and charges me a euro. The bar is L-shaped, with a door at either end, always open and the weather blows through unobstructed. When a mist rolls over the mountain, it rolls into the bar. There's a table in one corner, though no-one ever seems to have sat there, three barstools, a fruit machine and a small colour television on which Frank and I watch Pasapalabra, a game show on Telecinco. We're obsessed.

Frank may own more than one cardigan, but if he does, they are all burgundy, and otherwise identical. He is as gruff and self-contained as one might expect the proprietor of a station café in southern Spain to be, but he seems to like me, perhaps because I share his enthusiasm for Pasapalabra. Álora nestles among three mountains, and the railway station is at the very bottom of the town, so the TV reception is often poor, and when the wind picks up along the Guadalhorce and rattles the shutters and agitates the spirits bottled behind the bar it's hard to hear much. Nevertheless the charisma of Pasapalabra's winsome host, Christian Gálvez, shines through the gloom. Everyone talks very quickly. Elderly women in the post office speak an accelerated version of the language recited on my Learn Spanish tapes. Of the conversation between host and contestant on a gameshow, against the clock, I pick out maybe two words in five. Somehow this does not diminish the charm of the thing. It's a word quiz, and everyone loves those, don't they? I do well in the music round, most nights. Frank does less well, not just in the music round, but generally, which is odd, him being a native speaker. He seems untroubled. Sometimes, I suppose, what is most important is to have the right answer, even if you don't understand the question.