It was a few years back now, I found myself in the countryside of eastern Aragon, trying to build a fire in the dark, and failing. The reasons for my being there were complicated, and I won’t wholly elucidate on that. Suffice to say I was lead there by my curious nature.
I'd say I was alone, but this isn’t entirely true. Four dogs and one kitten were my companions. Ultimately I was there to “look after” these animals, along with some chickens and rabbits that shuffled away inside a wire meshed square of land down at the bottom of the valley. My abode was a little stone house built into the side of an olive terrace that looked out over a vast array of nothingness. The place was so far away from the nearest village that electricity wasn’t available, and neither was running water. I figured that I could make trips to the river to wash, and fill my water bottles up from the abastecimiento communal.
When I was asked to go there and spend three weeks in this situation, I was in the middle of a rainy English summer and the thought of spending some time in the beguiling Spanish sun eating paella was rather tempting. The sun would stay bright and warm until at least 10pm out there, I thought, and I could spend my time in a hammock, reading and pondering my existence, why, I might even write a song or two. It was late October when I arrived, curiously, it was the same day that the clocks went back and summer crept away.
It came to my attention pretty quickly that making a fire that would burn for more than 30 seconds was not an easy undertaking. My first night out there was spent in cold darkness as I lay under a blanket with my brain turned onto denial mode.
I woke up the morning after and felt it imperative that I get into the village to buy firelighters. The weather was not at all abiding by my vision of spending sun drenched hours in a hammock. In fact, it was torrential and freezing. I’d had to leave the car at the top of the mud track that lead down from the top of the hill or else I’d have been mud bound. It took me about half an hour to walk up the slippery slope to where I’d left it.
Determined to get into the village, I was as serious as a bull in a ring who’s being goaded by the wafting of a cape in the hands of a man wearing idiotic tight fitting trousers and a daft hat. The car spluttered and failed to start, apparently unaffected by my life or death style struggle to reach civilisation. It, like me, obviously didn’t approve of the temperature of the Spanish countryside that morning.
The dogs had all followed me. One of them stared at me with its head cocked at an inquisitive angle, and the other three sniffed around the shrubs and bushes. I looked at the car for a bit and tried turning the key again. No luck. Choke, I thought, and pulled on an unfamiliar thing that seemed to do no good. After about half an hour’s musing on what to do, and trying the ignition repeatedly, the little fella decided to work and the engine coughed into life. The dogs all crammed into the back seat, I set off into the village.
The local shop, if you’d call it that, had no firelighters left in stock by the time I left. Spanish dictionary in hand, my desire for warmth massively dwarfed my desire to appear sane. I read out something along the lines of “fuegos…… para inferno… erm… erm… parrafino”. With mud up to my knees I stood there, rambling made up words and stinking of dog. The woman seemed to get what I was after when my face grew desperate and I made a charade of me trembling with cold, then a fire burning viciously (with sound effects).
I also stopped for a coffee in a little Cantina, and bought some bread from the Panederia. I poured my entire being into charades and dictionary antics. I wanted company so badly that I didn’t care how much I embarrassed myself trying to communicate with other human beings, and I felt like people understood, despite the lack of shared language.
From the second night onwards, I had fire. I learned that you must put small bits of kindling at the bottom and bigger bits at the top… hide a fire lighter in the middle of it all and you’re cooking with gas (not literally). I lit the hurricane lanterns and sat back feeling smug. Smugness quickly turned into loneliness as I realised that the basic premise of feeling smug is that you have someone share it with. The dogs weren’t impressed by my efforts and the cat was just trying to claw me, so I sat back and vacantly watched the flames devour the kindling and steadily eat into the bigger pieces of timber, hoping that they would last the night.
Time is very long when all you have to do is feed a few animals. Meal times become the glue of your day and you have to make sure you stick to them or else you start to question the purpose of breathing. I’d be woken around 8am by the dogs clamouring to get out, sleep another hour then get woken up again by them clamouring to get back in. I’d get up, feed them and the kitten and then feed myself, making sure the biggest of the dogs didn’t snaffle the kitten’s food whilst I was preoccupied with putting jam on bread for the human amongst us. Cups of tea were more valuable than ever before during those weeks.
Around a week into the ill-advised jaunt, I heard shooting. Then I heard more shooting. The dog’s ears all swivelled and pointed, as they also, heard shooting. If I’d have thought about it, I might have been worried, but rational thinking comes to your aid at times like this and I felt that so long as I hadn’t been shot AT, then there was no need to panic quite yet a while. Then the clatter of a car came down the track and a man got out with a gun and a woman. My mind touched on thoughts of imminent death as I wondered whether it best to make myself known, or hide. The dogs decided for me as they barked and ran towards the new arrivals. It turned out it was hunting season in Spain. Wild bores, it seemed, roamed these valleys and were ripe game for the country folk of Aragon. No one shot at me, but the noise of bullets echoed and bounced around for many days as the wild bore ran and dodged their fate, and I wished that someone had told me about this earlier.
Books became my doorway to other human’s lives, and I made sure the chickens had enough grass in their huts. It was too cold to wash in the river so I took to boiling the kettle and sitting in a tiny washing up bowl of water to get clean. At one point I saw a snake. I knew there were poisonous ones around, so I walked the long was round to avoid it. I made several trips into the village, and even ventured into the local town once, to buy dog food. On taking a trip to the public toilet in the town, I found myself incredulous at the fact that human beings have such things as electric hand dryers… What an incredibly weird and indulgent use of electricity, I thought, after my weeks of candle light and fire wood.
I was drying my hands after giving them a good old wash with soap and hot water. I was trying to prevent the wound on my hand from getting infected. The kitten wasn’t allowed on the bed, you see. He would repeatedly purr and paw his way under the covers, and I would repeatedly fish the torch out from underneath the pillow, locate said feline and throw him off the bed. At one point, I became so weary of his advances that I neglected to locate the torch, and just picked him up and threw him off the bed. However, my lack of caution meant that the run of events didn’t fall entirely toward the kitten’s misfortune. He dug his little cutting claws into the soft skin that runs down the outer side of the hand, and as I threw the little devil away from me, the skin ripped right along the length of my own paw. In the darkness I felt warm blood trickling into the creases of my palm. Turning the torch on revealed a wealth of red on the sheets. Rational thinking kicked in again, and I covered the injury with alcohol which stung a lot. Lying down, I tried to ignore the pain and declared one to kitten, nil to me. I still have two scars from that kitten. I wonder what a fortune-teller would make of that.
Now I’d been informed that the dog’s usual barking and running off into the night was nothing to be perturbed by. I’d been informed that if there was anything actually threatening in the vicinity, I’d know because the dogs wouldn’t just bark and run around bit, but go “ape shit”. I was sleeping soundly at around 2am in the pitch black, when I was awoken by a small growl. One of the dogs was staring at the wall, ears towards the outside world. No sooner had I come to wonder what the devil was going on, when all four dogs arose and darted out of the building, going, what could only be describes as “ape shit”. There was obviously something a miss. A wolf? I thought. A wild dog? I worried. Stood in the middle of the room, freezing, my toes scrunched up with fear, I reasoned that dogs have teeth, so it’s fine that they’re out there and I’m in here… although `I was supposed to be looking after them. I was completely defenceless and literally naked in the middle of a room in the middle of a valley in the middle of country in the middle of a world in the middle of a universe and I was alone and I was scared. The fire had gone out. The dogs didn’t come back for two hours and the kitten carried on clawing me.
I learned a lot during that time, mainly, how to make a fire and not let emotions get the better of me.