short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography
The news came via Latvia of all places. I can’t say it wasn’t expected. Not by that time. Well, the fact it came from Latvia wasn’t expected. My mobile rang. A familiar voice told me the council office for art and culture had issued an order that the art market must be shut down immediately. Javier was calling from Riga. He is one of six artists at Conil de la Frontera’s little art market. I’m another. Though faraway in the small Baltic State of Latvia, Javier was the artist the council official picked to inform. Most probably, the council views him as the most sensible one. Maybe the official assumed he was in Spain. I suppose, given the gravity of the message, I might regard Javier as the most sensible one. But I wouldn’t have rang him. Because I knew he wasn’t in Spain.
After entrusting what little information he had received to me, Javier got on with whatever people get on with in Latvia. Despite the sparseness of the information we both knew what was up. Reality had finally dawned, our Andalusian pueblo was now part of the Coronavirus crisis.
Conil de la Frontera is a small town on the coast of Spain’s southernmost province of Cádiz. It’s so far south of Madrid, we can make out the twinkling lights of Tangiers from across the straits some nights. Live here long enough and you grow never to expect the sort of troubles you left behind in another world. After almost twenty years, it begins to feel like you’re living in the past. And then something happens to wake you up.
The atmosphere felt strange from the moment I got out of bed. We were all very aware of what was happening in the rest of the world, but could never quite get our heads round the idea that it might happen here. As I put the kettle on, news of the virus encroaching ever nearer blared from the TV. Despite no cases being reported in Conil itself, there had been at least nine more in the region.
On my walk into town to buy bread, none of the customary crowd of smokers sat at tables on the terrace outside San Antonio’s cafetería. That felt odd. Though I hadn’t wandered that way, I’d seen the Friday market setting up on the edge of town as usual.
Despite the arrival of a new bakers just minutes from the flat, I still buy bread from a small grocery shop near the town centre. The walk does me good. Besides, after years of living here, I feel I owe local family concerns as much of my custom as I can manage. Four major supermarkets have set up on the ring road that began arching its way round the town a dozen or so years ago. Their opening has led to the closure of many small shops. Changes like that reawaken the sort of loyalty that died in another century over much of Europe. On my way home, I see nearly all the cafés and bars practically deserted.
After breakfast I return to town to open the iron gates to the market. Though people walk the streets and most shops are open, the bars and cafés are all but empty. Like most Andalusians, Conileños virtually live in bars and cafés. If they’re empty, things are far worse than I imagined.
Just three regulars stood at the counter when I went for a coffee at José Rayos, on the other side of the fountain. Friday usually sees eight or nine, at the very least. Nearly all men, gossiping and joking with each other. This Friday, two were listening to a third with his back to me. A retired street lottery ticket vendor, he seemed to be deriving a vicarious thrill from complaining about the shortage of masks at the town’s pharmacies. Perhaps, a little unfairly, I’ve always seen him as having a malicious streak. That in mind, I was put at unease by the generous dollops of saliva my wild imagination saw flying from his lips as he spoke. Knocking back the last of my coffee, it was time to hurry back to the market.
Not ten minutes had passed after Javier’s call than three council workers turned up bearing a sign to affix to the wall. The sign read that the market would be closed until March 30th. The way my mind was swirling by that time, March 30th sounded like the height of optimism. The optimism of hoping that things will be back to normal in time for the Holy Easter Week tourist rush. If that is to be the case, God really does work in mysterious ways. Whatever God’s plans are for Easter, I would have to make sure to switch off the lights and lock the iron gates, before leaving till I don’t know when. All the town’s cultural venues would be closing. Things had reached the point each one of us had been secretly dreading.
That’s how it happens. One morning you wake up to the reality that the world you knew yesterday had changed forever and things will never be the same.
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