The Old Algeciras
Morning came in the usual way. We were lying on a grass verge behind a clump of trees somewhere between La Linea and Algeciras. Unfortunately, altho this did not constitute the edge of a main road it obviously was in the path of a lesser road which we hadn’t noticed. In daylight I could see that what we thought was a patch of waste land was in fact a track leading from one of the villages straight onto the main road.
Already the donkey carts were creaking along the track inches from our sleeping bags. A few yards away another stream of carts was making its way along the tarmac highway to the fields. The carts that creaked, the wooden wheels that groaned, and the rhythmic clatter of donkey hooves on tarmac was our usual early morning call. We paid no attention.
Then there was a terrific scream. It was a horrible ear splitting screech. All three of us sat up in alarm. I thought a car must have run down a donkey. We stared at the road but everything was calm, and then there was an ear-splitting rattle and a sort of bang, and out of the trees on the other side of us rushed this great iron contraption. It looked like one of those engines they were supposed to have in the American west in the eighteen eighties. The engine leapt pass us with another ear splitting shriek and vanished into a clump of bushes with its three coaches on there way to Algeciras.
“Stroll on! What a way to be woken up of a morning,” said Alan, staring hard at the clump of bushes where the train had vanished.
No-one was ready to get up yet as the sun had only just risen above the horizon, so we settled down for another half hour.
Unfortunately we weren’t going to get much more sleep. There was a rhythmic squeak coming from somewhere.
“Oi, who’s got a mouse in his sleeping bag?” yelled Alan.
Just then a wheel wobbled past my head, then some legs, then the other wheel. I sat up, and there weaving down the path was a Spaniard on his bike, obviously off to work.
Alan gave up and rose from his sleeping bag and started arranging his pack of gear while singing a rude song. Michael asked for the last few lines to be sung again and burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter.
As we drove towards Algeciras we passed bulldozers flattening the hills and bulldozing out new roadways. Street lighting was being put in along empty half made-up roads that stretched away into the hills.
“La Nacion, La Nacion.”
“Dos cinquenta Señor.”
Thick little newspapers like magazines for sale, padded round the front of a small dark man.
“Por dios, Por dios señor.”
A little white-haired crone sitting in the sunny corner of the pavement cafe. The gentle pull on the sleeve, smooth stroking of shirt sleeves, and a rich brown loving face pleading with the depth of dark brown eyes. “Una peseta señor, una peseta.” Followed by the brush off, full of shame. “Oh señor,” And you try to avoid the face full of deep expression and those heart-stabbing eyes.
“La nueva lotteria.” Not another one. Or is it the same one as last time. Every day it seems to be a new lottery. There are little collapsible stalls along the pavements with blind sellers huddling in their seats behind big sun-shades. “Dos, dos-cinquenta, tres…”
There was a sudden loud belch as a steamer boomed its rude call across the water littered with small craft. Lonely policemen strolled aimlessly about the traffic-empty streets, now and then directing heedless pedestrians swarming up the hill and spilling into the side streets.
One almost trips over the crouching boot-blacks perched along the edge of the pavement filing away at newspaper-reading customers’ shoes. The market place was swarming with piles of fruit and vegetables, with lemons, bananas, both green and yellow, and dates like globes of gum, chillies like corkscrew carrots, smooth mounds of paprika, speckled mounds of rice, dried blood-red powders, whites, greys, browns. Fat fish swelled their fat bellies across the wet slabs, dangling their flimsy tails into the crowd. Chickens, turkeys, and doves sitting patiently on their pavement lot, waiting to be chosen for the pot. Chickens in cages, chickens being carried off upside down, dangling by their feet, heads still upright, gazing abstractedly about them.
The narrow streets almost like large gutters; cobbled deep ruts between high pavements. Ladies calling raucously across the street; old women dressed in shrivelled black, wizen-skinned like the gobbled chops of turkeys. Young women in gaily coloured scarves briskly smiling at the shop-keepers with their rich red lips; little girls with skirts that almost refused to cover their bottoms, sucking dirty fingers, staring at the food and lovely clothes. Men standing, leaning, always watching, waiting, almost asleep under the ragged trousers and tangled coats.
Down the side streets were the dark cool bodegas: Vino Jose, Bodega Callejo.
Across the street the water was white in the sun, and strewn with craft, their masts spiking into the skyline. Ropes sagged from massive stone capstans, slowly dipping into the water, then turning and rising high as the boats rocked on the gentle swell.
Thick Atlantic clouds were sweeping in, dulling the sea with a spatter of rain. The wind whipped the waves into life. Within minutes the bay of Algeciras was changed to a dull grey.
Michael and I drove the van into the belly of the ferry to take us across to Ceuta. We left Alan on the station platform waiting for the train to take him up to Granada, and then Madrid and back to the UK.
Slowly the land slipped away; cranes, derricks, masts, rigging, people standing watching vacantly the passing of the ship, and then they squatted down by the white wall close to the quayside waiting for the next event to take place.
From over the northern hills the red light of a plane winked as it circled in to land along the wide runway of Gibraltar airport that stretches out on both sides of the promontory, and we left Europe.