The car, an old black Vauxhall Corsa – here called an Opel Corsa – was much lower to the ground than she’d expected and she’d landed too heavily in the driver seat. She went to check it was in neutral before turning the key, only to find that the piece indicating the numbers had fallen off the gearstick, so it was a case of guessing the correct positions.
One through five were easy, but reverse remained elusive until after a number of false starts, by which time she was almost fully wedged up against the car parked in front and sweating profusely. When she finally found it, she turned the engine off and rested her head on the steering wheel inside the crook of her elbow, staring sideways on at her surroundings, counting to five slowly; willing the stress in her body to subside.
The industrial estate was an eyesore nestling in a sloping valley scattered with firs. It was devoid of people, since it was nearing the end of the three-hour lunch ‘hour’ when – in what to her should be the busiest part of the day – everything was closed. Which might make sense down in the desert plains of Andalucía, but here in northern Spain heading into winter there was definitely no call for a siesta. The mechanic who’d reluctantly given her the key and shown her to the car had quickly done a disappearing act. She’d arrived too early, she knew, but she’d been anxious to get back up the mountain before nightfall.
Having adjusted the seat and mirrors, she turned the engine on again and carefully made her way out of the industrial estate, back towards the main road. Two orange symbols shone on the dashboard as she drove, one for the petrol and another that she should have recognised but didn’t. She tested the wipers in the patchy rain, and they left smears all over the windscreen.
That the car was not in fact roadworthy became apparent when she pulled in at a petrol station, to be informed by the young attendant in blue overalls that her left headlight wasn’t working. She asked him to stand behind the car and check the brake lights for her, which were fine, but then he checked the oil and the dipstick was bone-dry. It took two entire litre bottles to get something showing. As the attendant fiddled inside the bonnet fitting a new bulb, he suggested she take the car to a garage.
She wanted to cry.
She explained to him in her still broken Spanish that she had just come from a garage. Her own car had broken down a week ago, and this crappy thing was the temporary substitute from her insurance. The courtesy car, as we say in English, she mused to herself. Some bloody courtesy.
They didn’t even check it! She burst out angrily. Ni lo revisaron.
He nodded, unsurprised.
Back on the road, she switched the radio on and searched for a rock station she’d become partial to since moving out here two months prior, which played some real corkers and left all the swear words in – no need to censor English lyrics in Spain. She’d nearly veered into the kerb the first time when she hadn’t expected it, when they’d played Rage Against the Machine. Now she was used to it and she relished it; it made her chuckle. Tonight, mind you, she wouldn’t anticipate much swearing because the station was playing a Peter Gabriel medley, which some might say was somewhat middle-of-the-road, but she’d always secretly quite liked Peter Gabriel.
The rock station and its music took her back to her former life in the city. It was one thing – perhaps the only thing – about her new environment that spoke to her previous identity; that reached in and hooked directly onto what she tried to bury. For her, it was music taken out of context, by turns pleasurable and painful depending on the song. ‘Patience’ by Guns ’n’ Roses had seen her swing into a layby in a fit of sobs, unable to drive any further, struck by memories of erstwhile gatherings with acoustic guitars and everyone whistling along.
She knew that strong people didn’t pull into laybys and weep, allowing their insides to be torn to pieces by a simple song. This wasn’t the aim of the new venture, the new her. She was living halfway up a mountain now, surrounded by hardy paisanos who worried about the water supply to their cattle and the cold northerly wind coming in from the Bay of Biscay that was roundly considered bad; paisanos who regarded her anxious jittering and eagerness to please and be accepted with no expression whatsoever. Like flies on a cow, it didn’t even register. They had entirely another way of being, which she found curious and alien, and deeply superior to her own.
She didn’t know if the shitty excuse for a car she was driving would make it up the mountain. The four-by-four had broken down shortly after she’d bought it second-hand, and now the weather was turning and she didn’t have it when she most needed it. She could see the undulating contours of the mountain rising into a grey casing of cloud ahead of her in the darkening sky, which inevitably meant wet leaves and skidding on the dirt track where the road ended after the last village, which was called San Feliz – or Saint Happy. It was the name of the village that had persuaded her in the summer to go ahead and gamble the ruins of her old life for this wholly different one. As if it were a suggestive commercial slogan – precisely the kind of stimuli she was trying to avoid – she was sucked right in. Who could ever be sad living in a cabin above Saint Happy?
She was learning that the bracing wholesomeness of this deep country existence had nothing to do with being happy.
The radio station was a reminder of the last time she’d felt any real happiness. A time before the malicious, drink-fuelled gossip on the party scene she’d invested too much in had left her scarred and alone – a time when laughter, conversation and the joy of music and dance had been the stuff of everyday. When she’d still imagined that love et cetera was a possibility in her life, and children – or the lack of – was an issue comfortably postponed to age thirty. After age thirty, by which time she was washed up on some temporary shore licking her wounds and doubting the world in its present state really needed any more children, others seemed keen for her to know that the grace period was up; there was definitely a lack now – a glaring lack of male counterpart and progeny – a question mark over her head everywhere she went that needed accounting for, that felt more like a guillotine; a lack that said more to others about who she was than any of her hard work, personal virtues or achievements in life.
So she’d worked even harder to compensate, and that work had spawned more work, and more deadlines and targets, and high-flying career goals, none of which made her in the least bit happy. She’d started wearing makeup and smartened her wardrobe, got her teeth whitened like you were supposed to now. She upgraded her mobile phone and put herself out there on social media as a professional. She dated people she didn’t connect with at all, just for show, until she couldn’t face doing it anymore. She didn’t have the time. She hated it anyway. And the music faded away, and the laughter and the dancing, and the real conversation, and the shared spirit of youth; and still, assiduously she’d invested in the ever-changing surface of the world and in other people’s opinions of her, trying to turn them around, trying to prove herself worthy, to meet their expectations, though by their criteria she would only ever be found lacking…
And the ever-present anxiety had shaken her limbs and creased her forehead and ground her teeth at night; and the ever-building workload did nothing to tame the anxiety; no indeed, the two danced together, they harmonised, they lifted her body to new heights of endurance and then they climaxed screaming ‘FUCK YOU’, uncensored, over and over, until she lay bewildered on a hospital bed wondering what the hell just happened, and where all the visitors were.
The cabin, meanwhile, was as far removed from the frenetic post-industrial heartlands of England as one could imagine. It nestled on a west-facing promontory thickly wooded with chestnut, oak and ash, where deer and wild boar roamed, and vultures circled in the windy skies. Built in stone, it had an upstairs room and a downstairs room, and a toilet cubicle with a shower. A nearby spring provided its water and solar panels fuelled the lights and the fridge, while a gas canister outside connected to the boiler and the oven. To warm the place there was a nice big hearth. From her garden she could see out over the Piloña valley and Picos de Europa mountain range to the south, and out to sea towards England to the north.
She was living off her savings, but come next spring she planned to grow her own food, be self-sufficient as much as possible; clean people’s houses for cash or teach English only if necessary. It had occurred to her one day while out collecting kindling that this was her work now. No more commute, no more extended office hours to secure the salary to pay the gas company exorbitant rates to supply the house. She was going straight to the source and getting her own damn fuel. It was hard – she’d needed help at first with using an axe and fitting the gas canister – and she worried constantly about the logistics of her life – getting around, getting supplies, maintaining the cabin and its modest parcel of land against the trials of the weather. Essentially, she realised, she’d swapped one set of life problems for another. The difference was the pure air her lungs took in, and the mountain under her feet every day instead of grimy pavement, which grounded her in the most ancient of human stories, keeping intact the thread of ancestral connection in a world that pulled too hard and fast towards the future. And of course, there was the unutterable beauty of the views on all sides that greeted her each morning, reflecting back an outer world far more peaceful and promising than her inner one.
‘Sledgehammer’ had been and gone in its punchy brilliance. ‘In Your Eyes’ was playing now, soulful and lovely, as she turned off the national route onto the first steeply rising section of mountain road, which led through two other villages before reaching San Feliz – after which the smooth road surface stopped and she would learn if this Opel Corsa would manage to get her home. It was getting on for twilight and she sang as she drove into the low-hanging, creeping cloud, the kind they called el orbayu, winding her way around the hairpin bends, grateful for the strong radio signal. The good thing about keeping certain musical tastes secret, she mused, was there was less chance of someone else ruining it for you by lumping it with a bad memory. She knew all the words to ‘In Your Eyes’ – she and this song privately went back years, and here it remained as perfectly unblemished as the first time she’d heard it, a beautiful piece of art with no messy side effects. It made her feel ageless.
Entering San Feliz she waved at an old paisano she recognised who had a glass eye and kept cows further up the mountain, periodically rotating them to the field adjoining the spring near her cabin. He was standing by the roadside with a walking stick. Hasta luego, she mouthed at him as she passed. He lifted his head, back still hunched, and squinted. Didn’t recognise the car, didn’t react.
She was growing tense now, anticipating the final leg of the journey. She shifted into first gear and turned down the radio, which had stopped playing music and was chattering away at her in Spanish. Soon enough, the tarmac ended and the car bounced onto the dirt track, the moment when she would usually engage four-wheel drive. Just as she had feared, the track was laden with dead leaves that glistened in the not-quite-drizzle. She would have preferred to go slow, but she was going to have to accelerate to give the car enough momentum to make it up the next slope without skating and sliding back down.
She gave it her best shot. The first attempt was a miserable failure – she lost control of the car on the leaves and ended up back where she started. The second attempt was even worse; as she skidded on the incline and frantically tried to steer out of a muddy groove she learned that the Corsa’s handbrake didn’t work properly. She tried a few more times, then gave up and let the car roll backwards to a level and slow to a bumpy halt. Now what? For fuck’s sake. Options were limited and the remaining light was fading fast. Damn those wet leaves, she thought. She closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment on her breath. She could almost hear the droplets of the evening orbayu drifting outside the car on its slow misty roll down to the pit of the valley; it melded with the distant lullaby of Kate Bush telling Peter Gabriel not to give up on the very quiet radio.
At that very moment, a pair of headlights flashed across the rear-view mirror, and she jumped as another car roared up behind. Her drummed-in instinct was to panic: she was blocking somebody’s way; they would be angry. Then she remembered she wasn’t in the city anymore. Minding not to get her shoes muddy, she exited the car to find Nicanor, the paisano with the glass eye, at the wheel of his battered old Suzuki Samurai. Perhaps he’d heard her car skidding, or perhaps he’d anticipated the situation without needing to hear a thing: rain plus ordinary car heading for dirt track equals person stuck halfway up mountain. Perhaps he was on his way up the dirt track for his own purposes. Whatever precipitated his arrival, it was another example of how things seemed to float together in this place to carry you through the stickiest of scrapes. He gave a grunt of recognition and greeted her through the open car window. She was known as la inglesa in the village, or just la chica – the girl. She knew they watched her every move, talked avidly among themselves about her, but they looked out for her too. It wasn’t like the city: people needed each other here. She told Nicanor about the breakdown, and about the useless substitute car. Ni lo revisaron she said. He nodded, unsurprised. She’d thought he might offer to drive her up to the cabin, leaving the car where it was. She could easily stroll down in the hours of daylight next time she needed it. But he climbed out of the Samurai and hobbled his way over to the Corsa. Oh God, she thought, he’s going to attempt it. The old man signalled that she should go to the Samurai, where his keys still dangled in the ignition. She’d likewise left her key in the ignition, so it was a free-for-all.
Sitting in the driver seat of the Samurai, she watched him back up and rev, and then in a shot he was gone, the headlights of the Corsa illuminating the branches of the trees around the tight bend and snaking out of sight. He was going to make it, the old paisano, on his first attempt – and now she had the task of figuring out how to operate his car. Warily she looked over the controls and adjusted everything, checking it was in four-wheel drive; then she turned the key, went into first, grabbed the handbrake… and discovered the damn thing wouldn’t budge. Fuck, she thought. She tried again and again, and again, but nothing. How could an old man have the strength to wedge it like that? It was mystifying, but try as she might, she absolutely could not release the handbrake. She started to worry she might snap it off. Then it dawned on her that although she did have Nicanor’s number (since the incident a month prior when a cow got in her garden), she had been separated from her mobile phone – it was in the Corsa. So: no car, no phone, no torch, no walking stick… and a mountain to climb in the dark. She could waste these precious final minutes of visibility sitting in a panic behind the wheel, or she could get out and use her legs.
Don’t give up, she repeated in her head as she trod gamely along in the wet leaves in the misty almost-drizzle. Just past the first steep corner, already out of breath, she glanced down to where she knew a purple Peugeot 306 was currently wedged nose-first between a pair of ash trees on the vertical mountainside. She could just make out the French number plate in the dying light. The car had been there for weeks already. Nobody was entirely clear on what chain of events had sent it over the edge or where the owners went afterwards, though there seemingly weren’t any injuries. A foreign couple with a young child had called for a taxi from San Feliz on the same day it appeared. That’s all anybody knew.
She tried to imagine that poor French family, shell-shocked and shamefaced at their mountain escapade which one way or other ended in complete disaster; the agonised calls to the insurance company, sweaty hands wrung over the logistics of retrieving the car from where it was; everyone passing the buck of responsibility, leaving it to the local guardia civil to deal with. She started to laugh in spite of herself and her pace quickened with it, the solid mountain lifting her underfoot. Happiness was most likely a matter of discernment, she mused. It was there if you let it trickle in through the cracks. Like, right now for example, her four-by-four was getting fixed. There weren’t any wolves this side of the valley. And it wasn’t exactly raining.
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