short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography
In the autumn of 2001 the travel desk at The Independent emailed me in a panic to say they couldn’t find Santa Catalina on any map of Spain. An article I’d written on the pueblo was about to go to press. Straightaway I got on the phone to London. “Ah, yes, let me explain, there’s a very good reason you might not be able to locate exactly where it is …”
According to local gossip, the drowsy little fishing port of Santa Catalina is situated somewhere along the Atlantic coast of Andalusia. It is often said of its inhabitants that they live in the past. At the same time, nobody you speak to seems to recall ever having been there. Strangely enough, I have.
When not mending nets, lolling about Santa Catalina harbour, or out at sea fishing, Antolin and Pedro pontificate on the mysteries of life in Juani’s bar. Not just on the mysteries of life in Juani’s bar but the mysteries of life beyond Juani’s bar, and even farther afield than that. That’s if they’re not at Manolo’s bar, yelling at each other all through football commentaries on the radio.
Missive from Santa Catalina – Juicy Red Tomatoes
SEÑOR ALVAREZ HEAVED a box brimming with juicy red tomatoes up from the floor with a grunt. “This lot will have them through the door quicker than a gang of armed vampires raiding a blood bank,” he said to nobody in particular, as nobody in particular was there to hear. Humping it towards the front of the shop he dumped it on an upended crate by the door. “They won’t be able to resist these.” The grocer blew a sigh of satisfaction. “They’ll be gone in next to no time.” Read more
Juani’s husband Xavier no longer lives with the mother of their two young sons, having moved to the most distant corner of Spain you can get. Without being in France that is. He finally found work in a leather factory. He still returns for family celebrations and whenever else he can. To use Juani’s own words, “He is as impossible to live with as he is impossible to live without.”
Central to the daily life of Santa Catalina is little grocery shop run by Luis Alvarez, his wife Rosa and their son José Maria. When Rosa isn’t behind the counter, whiling the day away by chatting to customers, she’s upstairs watching Mexican soaps over a box of chocolates. Meanwhile, José Maria daydreams of becoming a flamenco dancer, that’s when he’s not daydreaming of Maria José, who lives across the street with her mother. The constant discord among the Alvarez family might go some way to explaining why Señor Alvarez can so often be found supping from the fountain of wisdom down at Juani’s bar, whenever he’s not in the shop. As Rosa has been heard to say on more than one occasion: “When he’s not supping he’s spouting.”
Sanchez works a smallholding on the edge of the pueblo. More than a bit of a grumpy, old skinflint, the pensioner supplements his precarious existence keeping goats and chickens, and growing vegetables to sell to Santa Catalina’s shops, bars and restaurants.
There couldn’t have ever been a keener nose than the one stuck on the front of the face of Officer Lopez of the Santa Catalina Guardia Civil. It’s a corker. Sniffing out crime and suspicious goings on is his business. He suspects there is a lot of both going on in Santa Catalina and swears he’ll get to the bottom of it.
Old Miguel has been in his nineties for as long as anyone can remember. Once a high-wire artiste in a circus, he’s a veteran of the civil war, though he has difficulty in recollecting exactly which side he was on.
Before reinventing herself as a gallerista, Marlene had arrived as a Swiss punk on her way to Morocco when her VW camper broke down just outside the town limits. A couple of years tramping about the pueblo spitting at tourists she begged from, had her experienced an awakening.
How exactly she came into enough cash to set up an upmarket art gallery is still a source of animated discussion down at Juani’s. The miracle occurred shortly after she vanished one night carrying nothing but an empty suitcase. Having not set foot out of the pueblo since she first arrived, word was she was gone for good. But she was back in no time at all. Apparently, she’d taken the overnight ferry to Morocco. Only to get the first one back early next morning. Though she tried to slip back unnoticed, she was spotted lugging a full suitcase along calle Cervantes. All I know is that she’d rather we didn’t talk about it.
It is said that the houses in Santa Catalina have walls so thin that if you whispered a secret at one end of the town, then ran as fast as you could to the other, you might just get to the farthest wall of the last house in time to hear someone whispering it on.
Missives from Santa Catalina is a series of short stories began not long after I moved into a very small house in the countryside of Andalucia. Roche Viejo is less of a pueblecito and more of a collection of rural settlements scattered among the pine forest and farmland just a couple of miles outside Conil de la Frontera.
Two of the stories were published in Anda Luz magazine, the rest gathered bytedust in my hard drive until a couple of years ago, when I set up Missives from Santa Catalina, which never really took off. Despite that, in my determination to inflict them on a wider audience I am recycling, re-editing and relaunching the tales and will be publishing links to them on this site. For those already familiar with them, there are some previously unpublished stories in the pipeline too.
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