It was the last day of my stay in the country before returning home to England. The month had been unusually hot and few of the tasks I’d set myself had been completed. This fact though troubled me not at all as I was due to return again towards the end of June when, I reasoned, I would be in a better frame of mind for work. Common sense should have told me that June was certain to be hotter still and that my time might have been better spent doing my jobs now rather than spending so much time in enjoyment. My justification for having done so little was twofold; the day of my arrival had been marred by a telephone call from England to say that a friend had died unexpectedly the previous night, then there was the inordinately hot weather to which I have already made reference. Instead, and much to my terrible shame, I had indulged in a binge of relaxation; sitting for hours on the terrace that looked down towards the sea with a bottle of exceptionally good red wine and bowlful after bowlful of green olives. Almost my only excursion into town during those seven days had been to the church of Sant Romá where I had lit a candle for my friend and knelt in silent prayer. The night was drawing in quickly and I glanced across from my seat on the terrace towards the little carriage clock on the table inside the lounge. In less than a half hour it would be midnight, a time that ordinarily would have seen me tucked up in bed and fast asleep. But for some reason my mind was active and in need of some stimulation; I slipped on a pair of shoes and set off in the direction of the beach.
The tiny curving road that offers access to the paseo and beach was deserted and I walked casually beneath the branches of the eucalyptus trees that marked the boundaries of the private gardens to each side. The scent of the eucalyptus and the sound of the waves beating their steady welcome on the sand made me rejoice while at the same time sending a shiver of expectation down my spine. I’ve learnt that the sea, of all of the places on the planet, is the one place where nothing is ever the same. I have often conjectured whether this is the reason why so many people can sit and just stare at it. No wave is the same height, no wave ceases its travel at the same point, and no wave has the same impact on the senses. It is a place of constant flux. And so it is with the people one finds there. I was soon to find that this evening was to be no exception.
I turned towards the eastern end of the beach where sits a restaurant, and where pretty orb-like street lamps light the paseo. There were more people about now, some walking their dogs and others, like me, simply out for the pleasures of a night-time walk. As I approached the very end of the paseo I became aware of some sort of gathering on the beach; a group of people who seemed to me to be entirely out of place. Few other of the night’s walkers were paying them undue attention but my own curiosity drew me nearer to them until, as I passed by the now almost deserted but still illuminated restaurant, I could see, gathered on the sand, somewhere between twenty and thirty people, most of whom were standing. Just one, a quite handsome man of about thirty years, appeared to be addressing the others, his compatriots engrossed in what he was saying. If any of them were aware of my presence they had the decency to ignore me and I sat down as close to them as propriety would allow.
I have had a home in this area for almost a quarter of a century and, in addition to knowing the place well, am familiar with the many languages spoken by the tourists who flock here in the summer months. English, French and German have been amongst the most common spoken, but just recently the Slavic languages have become more frequently heard. I was convinced that what I was hearing was a Slavic tongue: Russian perhaps. I asked myself why should it be Russian as opposed to, say, Bosnian or one of the Lechitic languages such as Polish? I doubt but few westerners have the ability to detect the difference, and in my own defence I have to admit that in suggesting the group were Russian I paid rather more attention to the container of clear liquid that seemed constantly to be passing between the crowd as to any other factor. Aware that my stereotyping may have drawn me to the wrong conclusion I have convinced myself, for the sake of this story, that the group were Russians; that the liquid was vodka.
So I sat and listened, having not the least idea what was being said, but laughing when others laughed, until finally the story, for that is what I assumed it had been, drew to an end.
Expecting everyone to leave at this point I was surprised when, following a well deserved round of applause, the handsome man stepped aside only for another to take his place, this time an older man whose tale appeared to have a rather more serious – even sad – undertone. I looked at the faces in his audience and saw concern, perhaps melancholy, where before there had been mirth. The vodka continued to do its rounds and the audience grew perhaps even a little disturbed by the older man’s story. After about ten minutes the narrative reached its conclusion, but instead of applause and jollity there was the occasional hand that sought to wipe away a tear. I withdrew from the crowd then and found myself a place to sit quietly and wondered at the mysterious forces that shape our lives, for at that very moment I knew what it was that had called me to the beach. In sitting quietly among those people, as an intruder must always do, I had experienced in the first story all the joy my lost friend had had in her life, and in the melancholy of the second all the terrible sadness of her passing.