Washed Up and Smoked Out

Little changes in Santa Catalina. But when so little changes, little changes are not hard to spot.

The first sign things weren’t quite as normal came with the exceptionally jolly faces that greeted me as I entered Manolo’s, the fishermen’s bar. Walls of irrational smiles always produce a frisson of paranoia that has me checking my flies. I hadn’t seen so much yellowing ivory since the time the circus came to town.

News was that a Guardia Civil cutter had intercepted a Moroccan fishing boat riding out a storm in the waters beyond the harbour earlier in the week. Not an unusual event for these parts. Most clear days you can see the hazy blue smudge of North Africa hugging the horizon.

Before the commander and his men had a chance to board, a suspected illegal catch of fish disappeared over the side. With no hard evidence of serious misdemeanour, three thankful-looking Moroccan fishermen were released without charge after four hours questioning and a stern warning.

Some time later, heavy seas yielded up an unexpected harvest on the long stretch of deserted beach between Santa Catalina and Los Pinos. By the time Officer Lopez drove out to investigate it had mysteriously disappeared.

Antolin wore an uncharacteristic stupid grin while recounting the event in Manolo’s. At the end of which, Pedro collapsed from his stool in a helpless heap of giggles that sent his scruffy dog scurrying out the door. Though vaguely amusing, the news wasn’t so funny. However, on a recent stroll past the narrow alley, winding from Plaza de Republica, towards Manolo’s, my nostrils caught the illicit aromas of the Maghreb wafting by. It’s an ill wind.

Once, while walking that same stretch of shore, I spotted a giant turtle beached after a particularly violent gale. As I approached the stench of putrid flesh became so overwhelming I couldn’t get near. Bleached white by sun and salt, the shell stood three feet high and measured more than five feet in length. When I told Juani she immediately wanted to hang it beside her paintings in the small bar she runs in Plaza de Republica. Despite telling her how morbid the idea sounded, she persuaded Pedro to drive us out there in his old van. All the way I tried to convince her of the folly of the scheme. Even could we bear to get close, it would take far more than three of us to lift it. Juani was not to be put off. With a silk scarf held over her mouth and nose she strode right up and poked a stick at it. The stick went straight through the shell, which had softened to mush in seawater. She made us promise to go back in a few days, assuring us, having dried out by that time; the stench would’ve gone. In her excitement, she said she would bring her boys to lend a hand. I reminded her they were only three and seven years old. Thankfully, on our return, she was right; the smell had gone. So had the giant turtle, both washed away by another storm.

For centuries, Santa Catalinians have reaped the rewards of others’ misfortunes on their beach. The Battle of Trafalgar is still recalled as being particularly bountiful, though nobody in the town can possibly be so old.

Antolin’s grandfather once showed me an ancient naval tunic with tarnished gold braiding and epaulettes. He told me it had been handed down through the generations. Family history had it; a distant forebear had found it in a sea chest near the remains of a shipwreck washed up on the beach over two hundred years ago. Next to it, a convenient piece of driftwood bore faint letters spelling ‘Victory’. Just in case I hadn’t pieced things together by that time, the coffer had yielded up several other interesting clues, including a black eyepatch, and a brass telescope. Wearing a face as straight as a Roman road, Antolin’s grandfather asked me what they might signify. I knew where things were leading. Before he got round to it, I pointed out Admiral Nelson’s flagship was never sunk, and can be visited in Portsmouth harbour to this day.

Later, Antolin confided his grandfather had bought the tunic in a lot of a dozen at the Sunday morning flea market in Cádiz. They came from the properties department of a film company. So far, he has managed to sell seven of them to unsuspecting English tourists.

What one tide brings in, another can take away, Antolin told me.

Not after you’ve smoked it, I said.


© 2009 Bryan Hemming



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