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The Iberian Horseshoe — A Journey

Part III. South East

Uncle Bill & Aunt Margo

Steve Porter
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They hired a car and drove us up to the mountains.

“It’s amazing to think Benidorm is only a short distance away,” Mary said.

“Och. I’m not interested in that,” said Bill. “I want to see the real Spain.”

“The real Spain,” said Margo from the back seat. “Where do you think you’re going away up here? It seems more like the moon to me.”

Perched on the edge of a cliff at Guadalest, is a whitewashed bell tower that looks down into a turquoise reservoir. Olive trees and gorse punctuate the sun-scarred landscape. We stopped off in the village where tourists were invading the ceramic shops. This was not my first visit. I had been there before as a seventeen year old on my first holiday abroad. I took full advantage back then of the free booze, on a trip to sample moscatel wines. I kept drinking on my return to the resort of Calpe. At the end of the night I had a bucket of water thrown over me by an English couple who ran a bar there. They were worried that I would be picked up by the local police. The following day I lay flat on the apartment’s cool tiles which seemed the only way to relieve the pounding headache and nausea. Any attempt to lift my head off the floor felt like a near fatal move.

This time I steered clear of the wines of Guadalest and bought some nísperos from a local store instead. I had never heard of this fruit before coming to the region. Medlars grow locally and taste deliciously sweet on a hot day. The medlar season is very short so I was eating as many as I could before supplies ran out.

We survived the trip back down the dangerous mountain roads although Bill was not coping too well with driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. When driving on the right he had a tendency to hog the kerb and hit the pavement on more than one occasion. But Bill could not wait to get out on the road again.

“I’ve been reading my guidebook and I quite fancy this Granada.”

“Where’s Granada?” asked Margo. “I thought that was a petrol station.”

Mary laughed. “Oh it’s long trip,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

“It’s very busy there at this time of year,” I added. A multiple pile up was developing in my head.

But Bill persisted.

“I’ve hired the car so we might as well make good use of it. It would only take a few hours to get there.”

I was designated the job of making enquires. I phoned several hotels but they were all booked up for the coming holiday weekend. At least I had tried. Once again Granada was not to be.

Bill tied a handkerchief round his neck. It was a practical fashion he had picked up a few decades before as he cycled around Spain and France. We soon found ourselves halfway up a slip road going onto the motorway in the wrong direction. Fortunately it was quiet at this time of the morning and there were no cars about. He had enough time to turn around and head back towards Cartagena.

The array of debilitated housing on the surrounding hillside suggests Cartagena has a fraction of the wealth of other south eastern cities. Old whitewashed churches and run down barrios made it look like another continent. I thought I saw the colonel from the García Márquez story sitting in the sun waiting in vain for good news.

Attempts have begun to spruce up Catagena’s image but it is already a charming city in a degenerate sort of way. In fact, Mary and I had come back for a second visit. The old town walls brought back memories of Cádiz. Mediterranean breezes blew the tassels on the caps of foreign sailors. It seemed a long way from the suburban Costa Blanca developments of Torrevieja.

After lunch, Bill got back in the driving seat of his scraped Fiesta. He drove on through the open cast mining area of La Unión in the arid landscape of southern Murcia.

“We’re on our way back now Margo.”

“Thank God. It’s horrible with all this sand everywhere. Nothing grows. I don’t know how you can live here. Are there no animals in the fields?”

“What are you talking about?” said Bill. “There are no animals back home either. They’ve all been killed off by Foot and Mouth.”

When homesick I reminded myself that Britain was no picnic right now. The year was only a few months old and Foot and Mouth, floods and a London train crash had all made the Spanish news.

“This is like going to Belsen on your holidays,” added Margo somewhat mysteriously.

On the last day of the holiday Bill reluctantly agreed to leave the car behind and take the train into Alicante. He moped around the city, looking quite the Scotsman abroad in his sandals, socks, white shorts and back to front baseball cap. Nonetheless he generously treated us to a meal in one of the promenade’s more expensive restaurants. We sat under a clear tarpaulin with a view of yachts rocking in the harbour. Palm trees whispered in the breeze. But they did not impress Margo. She was looking forward to getting back home.

“Palm trees look quite nice on these holiday programmes but when you see them close up they’re quite untidy, aren’t they?”

The waiter was standing by our table with pen and notepad in hand.

“Never mind that. What do you want to eat?” Mary asked.

“Oh I can’t decide. There’s an awful lot of fish on the menu.”

“What the hell is wrong with fish?” Bill enquired.

“You know I don’t eat that when I’m out. I was brought up on a diet of salt herring. I hate it. They would have to pay me to eat fish.”

The waiter indicated that he would return in a few minutes.

“What are you doing embarrassing me like that?” said Margo to her husband.

I suggested she try paella.

“Doesn’t that have rice? No. I don’t like that.”

“Christ. How bloody fussy can you get,” laughed Bill.

“I’m not at all fussy,” replied his wife. “I just want something normal. Is there chicken? That’s fine. I’ll just have chicken then.”

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Copyright ©Steve Porter, 2004
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Date of publicationMarch 2007
Collection RSSGlobal Fiction
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