18 September 2023

If you go down to the lemon groves today, you’re sure of a big surprise : 2017 : Mar Menor, Spain

 The motionless car stood sideways across the road with its four doors wide open. A road accident? Moving nearer, nobody was visible either in the car or on the roadway. The engine was running and its headlights were bright, but there was no sign of another vehicle or an obstruction the car could have hit. If not a traffic accident, then what had happened?

I was taking my daily early morning run, normally uneventful, along a straight, flat tarmacked ‘agricultural road’ that led three kilometres out of the Spanish village as far as the shore of the Mar Menor inland sea. When the summer heat became this oppressive, runs proved feasible only during the darkest hour just before dawn. Other than an occasional farmer on his tractor, the roads were empty at that time of day as village life did not awaken until ten o’clock. Something about the car up ahead of me was definitely not right.

Wherever I found myself in the world, my morning constitutional involved an outdoor run. This exercise regime had been thwarted only in Moscow where, after several attempts, I was choked by engine fumes and endangered by cars driven along pavements; and in Cambodia where even a short walk in its humid heat immersed you in a sauna-like furnace. I had started running regularly forty years ago as a university student to relieve stress, initially circling the little used 400-metre Maiden Castle racetrack alongside the River Wear a few times, then having built up my regime daily until it reached dozens of laps.

At school, a weekly three-mile cross-country run had felt akin to punishment during Wednesday afternoon ‘Games’ in winter for the thirty of us disinterested in playing team football. Regardless of what the weather might throw at us, PE teacher Graham Taylor would send us out on the footpath up Coopers Hill, passing the John F Kennedy Memorial, the site of the Runnymede signing and Langham Pond, to return to our school Playing Fields more than an hour later. For a cheap thrill at the outset, boys would hold hands in a line and the end one touch the electrified fence alongside the A30 Egham By-Pass, awaiting the periodic pulse that sent a shock through each of us in turn. I am grateful to Taylor for having unwittingly initiated my fitness regime, despite his indifference in the face of my disdain for competitive sport. When I visited his office on my final school day after seven years to purchase a yellow ‘Strode’s’ sweatshirt, he scoffed: “Why would you want that now?” I still have it almost half a century later!

Not that I was wearing it in Spain that morning as, even before dawn, it was already way too hot. As I ran closer towards the car in the darkness, I could see it positioned across the roadway to shine its headlights into the neat rows of the unfenced lemon groves that stretched for miles on both sides. I was close enough now to make out that the car’s back seat and passenger seat were piled high with … lemons. Aha! Even Clouseau would have deduced that I had stumbled across a lemon thief operating under cover of darkness in the middle of nowhere. Despite my temptation to stick around and view the perpetrator, I had no desire to be shot at dawn. Instead, I ran on into the darkness, reached my end-point where sunrise was emerging over the sea, paused and returned along the same route to find the thief long gone as daylight was starting to seep across the landscape.

Friday was ‘street market day’ along the village’s ‘High Street’ where, that week, I spotted a stall with a man selling loose lemons, rather than those from marked agricultural crates. Was he the fruit bandit whose nocturnal handiwork I had witnessed? I never knew and, apparently, neither did the pair of municipal police who ambled through the market. It was an example of the combination of audacity and pettiness apparent in Spain. In the centre of another village, already I had watched an old woman nonchalantly rip out plants from a municipal flowerbed in broad daylight and carry them home, apparently unconcerned who might be watching. Do the Spanish even have a word for ‘shame’?

During another early morning run on the same route, I was surprised to find a woman’s matching check bra and knickers on the ground at the edge of the lemon grove in the middle of nowhere. My initial instinct was to leave the road and walk into the grove to convince myself this was not a horrific crime scene. Then I realised it might not be construed as civic duty for the police to find me possibly standing over the remains of one of the five thousand women murdered annually in Spain. So, yet again, I simply ran on … after photographing the evidence.

The only regular sign of life I saw on my route out of the village during daily runs was a group of men who stood outside the ‘Sport Bar’ at six in the morning on weekdays. They would await the arrival of minivans whose drivers shouted out the number of men required for that day’s work in the surrounding fields. As I passed the group, they would jeer and shout at me as if the notion of an old man running in order to maintain his health was a completely alien concept to them … which in rural Spain it probably was.

There was a memorable morning when, following their usual taunts, one man emerged from the crowd and started to run alongside me. I was not intimidated. I imagined he might continue a short distance, tire quickly and return to his mates. However, once we reached the limit of the village’s lit streets, he continued into the darkness of the lemon grove. Now I began to feel intimidated, particularly as he insisted on running so close beside me that our elbows touched, despite the unlit road being sufficiently wide for two vehicles. If I were to stop running, or to say anything, I was worried that he might turn on me, so I continued and ignored him.

After a while, he switched to running behind me, but so close that I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. It was a stupid and dangerous move, as he could have easily tripped me up, so I responded by picking up my pace to pull away. This must have been misunderstood as a challenge rather than self-preservation, as he caught up, then ran closely beside me once again, then switched to running inches in front of me. If I had maintained my speed, I would have been in danger of stepping on his heels and tripping up both of us. I slowed my pace and watched as he continued to run on ahead into the darkness beyond. He must have felt so proud that day to brag to his mates how, during a quarter-hour, he had run faster than a foreigner three times his age. Angry and upset, I cut short my usual routine, turned around and re-entered the village on a longer route to avoid the ‘Sport Bar’. After that, I ensured that my morning run never passed there again.

Even everyday village life proved a challenge. Each occasion my wife and I shopped in its supermarket, we would be the only customers in the checkout queue humiliated by having to empty out the contents of our knapsack and handbag. We observed locals in its aisles pocket items from shelves with apparent impunity because it seemed self-evident that only foreigners were thieves. We also aroused ire because we paid by debit card, which the checkout person would insist on grabbing from us, inspecting this strange technology and ramming it into a prehistoric machine that only functioned sporadically and required a wait of several minutes to display ‘approved’.

Having spied a poster for an ‘open day’ at the village’s modern theatre building, we thought it would make an interesting diversion. However, before our visit inside had even reached the auditorium, we were confronted by an angry group of women who ordered us out of their building. Many such municipal projects become ‘white elephants’ created by the mayor’s ego simply to impress his chums and the electorate, regardless of practicality or cost. Belonging to neither category, we were evidently not welcome. From its published schedule, this particular theatre only staged productions on about a dozen days per year.

To make explicit this village’s unfriendliness to outsiders, it would have been an easy task to simply stick two huge posters on the outside of their building that state in big red lettering ‘DO NOT ENTER FOR NO MEMBER OF THE SOCIAL CLUB’ in English. That is exactly what the village’s social centre had done to ensure that no foreign tourist dared to cross its threshold, pointedly warning in a language we found no local spoke.

Scuttling back to our rented terraced house near the village centre, we were left to the mercy of our neighbours. On one side was a couple in their fifties who argued and watched television late at maximum volume. Friday evenings, a minibus would arrive to unload a group of primary school age children into their tiny house. Group sing-songs at high volume ensued … continuously. In pyjamas, I knocked on their front door at two o’clock in the morning to ask politely if the tuneless singing could be curtailed. The door was slammed in my face. At three o’clock, I knocked again as the noise had continued regardless. Nobody answered. Their ‘party’ ended at dawn. By afternoon, the minibus would return and take away the children. Some kind of cult?

The first we knew of our opposite neighbour’s business was our living room filling with smoke from an unidentifiable non-tobacco drug. I traced it to the electricity meter on the party wall, built so thinly that smoke from next door seeped through holes made for cables connecting the adjoining houses. Thick insulation tape had to be purchased to block the gaps around the meter and prevent us suffering involuntary highs. Noises from this neighbour’s kitchen, audible through the wafer-thin wall, sounded as if he was chopping vegetables all afternoon … but then it continued through the night. Eventually it dawned on us that he was a drug dealer cutting up supplies for customers. Why else would he drive a black sports car with gold wheel rims, darkened windows and a windscreen inscribed ‘PSAddicted’ that was parked out front? Not the kind of delinquent with whom to raise a neighbourly complaint, even though we often passed him sat outside on his front doorstep during daylight, openly smoking drugs.

One day there was a flurry of activity outside his house, including a brief visit from a local policeman. Later, a smartly dressed, middle aged man arrived and we could hear loud discussions inside the house surprisingly in French, a language never previously heard there. We could make out the lawyer instructing the dealer that he had a stark choice: negotiate with the family of the young girl he had hit while driving his car outside the local school and pay them an amount sufficiently persuasive to drop a prosecution; or flee to his native North Africa. We did not stick around long enough to learn of Kid Charlemagne’s fate.

Had we been staying in Sodom or Gomorrah? God may not have inflicted a plague of locusts on this village but he had dispatched its inhabitants a stern warning by infesting the whole place, not just the odd house, with cockroaches. You could exit your home in the heat of the noonday sun and see large bugs scuttling up the exterior walls and along the streets, totally oblivious to daylight or humans. Because household drains had been constructed without U-bends, the vermin could travel with ease through the sewers into buildings. Everything that we witnessed there resembled a biblical tableau … of a godforsaken village that was determinedly stuck in feudal times.

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