“Could you drop me here, señor?” he asked from his seat near the front of the bus.
“You don’t wish to enter the village?” the driver asked, observing the tall, foreign man through one of his mirrors.
“Not today, gracias.”
“As you wish.”
When the bus had climbed the slope and disappeared behind the first squat white houses, he hoisted his rucksack onto his shoulders, crossed the main road, and headed off up the dusty track towards a gorge. The sun was to the south-east and he ought to have plenty of time.
As he strolled between fields of almond trees, a few still in blossom, it struck him as ironic that one of the many things that he wished to escape from had enabled him to pinpoint this promising spot, on the last computer he intended to own. He could have asked in the village, of course, as the days he had spent in Granada and Baza had reassured him that his Spanish, although poor, was more than adequate for his needs, but he wished to start out as he proposed to go on, alone.
He carried on his back all he needed for at least a week. The narrow, fast-flowing stream that he left the track to follow entered a rocky gully where he hoped to discover his new home. He saw no footprints on the scrubby, stony earth, and counted only four cartridge shells, all rusty enough to suggest that nobody had passed that way for a long time.
The hare which darted away upstream had nothing to fear, as Tom Worsley, retired postman of forty-three, was no hunter. He was no survival expert either, and would need a supermarket sooner or later, but he had promised himself a week of complete solitude before he pushed open another door.
His rucksack was heavier than any postbag he had carried during the last twenty years, but contained no tent. He would find a suitable place in one of these ravines or sleep under the stars. After eating a sandwich, he drank and washed his hands and face in the stream. No sooner had he pulled on his new boots than he spotted a crevice away to his left, some ten or twelve yards above the level of the stream.
It proved to be just that, a crevice, but no matter, he had all the time in the world to find himself a small, isolated cave in which to live. After exploring that gully he clambered up to the top and from the plateau saw more ravines to the north, east and south. After the miles of cultivated fields he had passed on the bus from Baza, this harsh, fragmented landscape felt strange but appealing, and he scrambled down into the next gully, scanning the opposite side for any promising apertures.
By sundown he had located three caves, none of which would become his home. One was large enough, but too close to the riverbed – a dry one this time, so no good to him – and with a sloping floor. Another was higher up, but only slightly deeper than the length of his body, and the third was a good cave, but, like the first, too easily accessible, as the chiselled graffiti attested. Jose y Marta, was the deepest inscription he found, and looked the oldest. He wondered if they were still together, or still alive, before stroking their handiwork and stepping outside.
He returned to the small, high cave, dropped his rucksack inside, and hurried to the top of the slope to see the sun setting behind the distant mountains. Yes, this area would do just fine if he could find the right cave. He felt pleased that his deduction – that if there were cave dwellings in and around the villages, there were bound to be more stone sanctuaries further afield – had proved to be correct. He gazed at the reddening sky until he began to shiver, before creeping cautiously down to find his head torch before darkness fell.
He unpacked his foam mat and sleeping bag, before pulling out his cooking utensils. Should he bother to cook something, or just eat his last sandwich?
Cook, you lazy devil. A hermit can´t live on bread and cheese alone, or rather he can, but needn’t. This is what you wanted. This is what you´ve spent the last two months planning, so start as you mean to go on.
He spoke aloud and it didn’t seem too weird a thing to do. Maybe he should talk to himself in Spanish though, as he’d be seeing people eventually. He didn´t want to say goodbye to his fellow man forever, but just have a rest and test himself. He might be wrong, but he suspected that a complete break from people and technology was the ideal first step in his quest for a more meaningful life.
Wipe the slate clean, then start afresh, Tom Worsley. Let´s see if we can make the second part of your life more fulfilling than the first. Now cook.
If heating up a can of chilli con carne can be called cooking, he cooked, but, to be fair, it was cramped in the cave and the slope outside was too steep for his tiny camping stove. There would be time enough to make rice or pasta and something to pour onto it once he had found his permanent cave, so he ate his meal with bread, before boiling water for tea.
Later he bedded down with his towel-cushioned head almost level with the cave entrance and gazed up at half a skyful of stars. It was the first time he had camped out alone for two decades and it felt good. The night was chilly, but when he found his permanent cave he would be protected from cold and heat alike, or so he had read.
When his father had died in January he resigned from the Royal Mail immediately and began to plan his new life. He had been waiting for a long time, not for his father to die exactly, but as he had returned to his home town twenty years earlier due to the old man’s ill health, he felt it was high time he moved on.
He had been in Spain when he had made the fateful call – to his aunt, as his Dad wasn’t picking up – and been told that he’d had a heart attack. He had just finished his round, she said, when he came over all queer, and his colleague had rushed him to A&E just in case, and just as well, the doctors said. He never delivered the post again, but Tom applied just to please him, so another Worsley tramped the streets of their Lancashire town for a score more years.
His workmates said he was mad to pack it in, just when he’d been given a rural driving route, but Tom had already worked out that he need never do paid work again, not if he lived frugally. He wasn’t averse to work as such, but resolved to do it how and when he chose. Not that the Post Office hadn’t been a benign employer, but the books he had read had turned his head, some folk said, and made him throw away his career and sell that fine detached house too quickly and cheaply.
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it,” he had quoted to one soon to be ex-colleague, having just read Thoreau’s Walden for the third time.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Tom?”
“You’ve just bought a new car, haven’t you?”
“Well, calculate how many hours you had, or have, to work to pay for it and that’s how much life you’ve exchanged for it.”
His colleague thought for a while. “That’s a lot of hours.”
“But I enjoy my job.”
“Hmm, that’s a good point. I don’t think the bloke who wrote what I just said considered that. He assumed everyone disliked doing paid work. Still, it’s a good rule of thumb, isn’t it? Every ten quid that you spend has cost you about an hour spent tramping round this town, rain or shine.”
“I still think you’re mad to pack it in.”
“Maybe, but it’s something I’ve been promising myself for a long time.”
“I’m not sure yet,” Tom said, and with a week of his notice period still to work his possible ways of escape were still various and vague.
His digital watch rather than the sun woke him the following morning, making him wonder which way he would prefer his future home to face. By the time he had dressed and made his way down to the stream to wash, he had concluded that sunny mornings or evenings would be equally acceptable, and that as there was no estate agent’s portfolio to browse through, he’d better be satisfied with what he got.
It had been while looking at estate agents’ websites, however, that the cave idea had first occurred to him. Initially he thought about buying one, as they were to be had cheaply in this part of the world, especially if water and electricity were ‘close by’ – a euphemism for not connected – but his increasingly radical train of thought had led to him leaving over 99% of his money in the bank and flying out to search for an untenanted, undocumented freehold to the north-east of Granada, whose wonderful Alhambra Palace he had visited four days earlier.
Maybe a few of those clever Moorish builders found themselves down on their luck around here and carved themselves out a little country pad. If there’s a quiet, habitable cave near here, I’ll be inhabiting it by nightfall, be it manmade, natural, or a bit of both.
After breakfasting on the leftover sandwich and a mug of hot chocolate, he decided to conceal his rucksack in the little cave in order to tour the remaining gullies more rapidly. After exploring three gullies in as many hours he was about to go back to retrieve his pack, walk back to the road, and catch a bus northwards to the next village. Then a long crack in the rock behind a stunted, sunlit pine tree caught his eye. He leapt over the narrow stream, scrambled up a gravelly slope, and climbed the last few yards of smooth rock on all fours.
What had looked like a fissure from down below was in fact a slanted opening about four feet high, a yard wide at the base, and a foot wide at the top. He gripped the narrow trunk of the tree and prepared to haul himself up and around it.
Don’t get your hopes up, because none have been any good so far. South-facing too, but maybe not so easy to get back down from here. But there’s depth to that darkness. Damn, my head torch. Well, stretch out your arm and hope for the best.
This said, he stepped onto the ledge and, remaining crouched, shuffled inside with his right palm outstretched. He soon touched stone, but sensing space to his left, he moved that way. When he had covered a few feet he exhaled slowly, a few more and he smiled. He slowly stood up straight and his thick hair rustled against the roof. Six feet just there. He closed his eyes for a moment before turning around slowly, and as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom he saw there was some width to the place and more length than he cared to explore without his torch, lest he bump into a skeleton or two. He made his way back outside and noted that the floor seemed fairly flat.
Standing just outside what he already considered his doorway, he looked down the steep slope. Tricky now, lethal in the wet. A rope ladder? Ha, sure, for any hunter or hiker who passes to see. To the right it was even steeper, but he figured that by walking carefully along a crack in the rock to his left he ought to be able to descend without having to slide down on his backside. Unloaded it proved easy, and when would he ever leave the cave with luggage? Only once, maybe a month, a year, or a decade from now.
Ha, let’s say a week to begin with. Now go get that rucksack and shine the old torch around.
This he did and he liked what he saw. His new home was an open-plan affair, roughly rhombus-shaped, about eight yards long by four yards across the middle. Just over six feet proved to be the highest point, but he could have swung a cat at shoulder height without stunning it, not that he had anything against cats, though he preferred dogs, despite their neediness.
Home sweet home, or rather, hogar dulce hogar. Sleeping area there where it’s smoothest, living and dining room in the middle, and kitchen near the doorway. Bathroom outside, though a trimmed water bottle should see me through the night. Trowel handy for number twos. Now what do I do? Unpack? Find wood for a fire to save gas? Write some profound notes in my notebook? Open that bottle of wine?
In the event he scoured the cave for signs of past or current occupation. He found no bird or bat droppings, whatever bat droppings looked like, and just a few creepy-crawlies, all dead. One bit of graffiti, a faint cross, so presumably no more than two thousand years old. No pick or chisel marks, so the cave was natural. Then he tested the temperature. Maybe eighteen degrees today, warm in the sun, and progressively cooler as you approached the back of the cave. He knew that such a small cave couldn’t perform miracles of refrigeration, but guessed that when things hotted up as summer approached, the rear of the cave would become the place to be.
And the cold? Heck, who knows where you’ll be half a year from now. You’ve spent twenty years posting letters, so now let’s take things one day at a time. Carpe diem and all that.
He had done more than just post letters during the last twenty years, of course, despite having had to abandon his first love at twenty-two. Running had been his passion, and he had been good at it, though, on retrospect, maybe not quite good enough to have thrown away a good history degree in pursuit of his dream. The knee operation had put paid to that, and when he left York University with a 2.2 he knew that his vague intention of doing a doctorate – easy to fit around his training schedule – was as scuppered as his running career.
“As well as my 2.2, I’ve run 10,000 metres in just over twenty-nine minutes,” he might have said at the interview.
“Very interesting. They’ll give you your travelling expenses in the office.”
He had been working in a pub in York, loath to leave the scene of his triumphs and failures, when a friend suggested a walking tour in northern Spain. His knee should be able to handle that, he thought, so when his friend got cold feet, he went alone and walked west from Figueres to Besalú, Olot, Ripoll, Berga and Solsona, before hitching a ride to Lérida. The car journey having given him a taste for speed, he hopped on a bus to Zaragoza, where he spent two rainy days, before catching a train to Pamplona.
In early August, with the bull running multitudes long gone, he walked around the tranquil city and liked what he saw and felt. How could it be so hot and yet so green? he asked himself on his first morning, and the brief but daily afternoon downpours soon explained that. He loafed around and was in no hurry to leave. He was strolling past a language school one day when he came to a halt. The Union Jack sign seemed to beckon him. He rang the bell, but there was no answer. Back at the cheap hotel he borrowed the Páginas Amarillas and neatly tore out the two pages containing the city’s Academias de Inglés, over a dozen of them.
The next morning, asterisk-scarred street map in hand, he toured the streets and, August being holiday month, came across many a shuttered door, but in none of the half dozen schools where he found signs of life was he declared unemployable. At one rather tatty ground floor establishment he was led to believe that should he still be around in September, they might be able to use a neophyte such as he.
Elated, he had called his father, then his aunt, and finally booked the next flight from Bilbao to Manchester. Four months later he was a postman and he never got round to returning to Spain during the next twenty years. Inertia? A sense of duty? Whatever, but apart from posting letters, what had he done since his language teaching career had been thwarted?
Well, since returning to his father’s house – his strange and estranged mother having hopped it to New Zealand with another chap some years earlier – he had fallen in love twice and out of love once. After a couple of flings in York, he had found the first love of his life back in his home town.
Jenny was his age, twenty-five at the time, worked in a bank, and wanted two children. At first they loved, planned, walked at the weekends, and watched a little television. By the time Tom had half moved into her terraced house they loved and walked less and watched a lot more television. Jenny made as many plans for them as ever, but by then Tom’s only plan was to extricate himself from the noose of sedentary domesticity as soon as he could decently do so.
It was during his year with Jenny that he had his first run-in with technology, in the shape of that tiresome box in the corner of her living room. Until then he had used television much as he used a toaster; he switched it on when he wanted to use it. Toasters have the advantage of switching themselves off, of course, and one evening at Jenny’s he ventured an analogical quip regarding the two devices.
“What do you mean, Tom?”
“Well, you know, if the TV switched itself off at, say, ten o’clock, I’m sure we’d find something more interesting to do.”
“But we’d miss some of the best programmes, silly.”
“I guess so,” he said, as ‘Yes, dear’ had gone out of fashion by the late-nineties.
Two months later he was back at Dad’s, admiring the old man’s brutal verdicts regarding the four TV channels they had access to.
“Shit, shit, shit and… shit. Off it goes,” he would sometimes say, before giving the remote a final vicious stab.
“Here, here, Dad.”
The two of them got along just fine for the next five years and Tom liked to be around to make sure his father didn’t resume the pie and beer diet that the doctors had forbidden him. Even in a brain drain town like theirs, however, opportunities have a way of presenting themselves from time to time, and when Tom met Sue on a college Spanish course he finally discovered what true love really was.
Until then he had never associated love with pain at all, but when, after months of post-class rendezvous, he asked her if she would consider leaving her lousy husband, her negative caused him much distress.
“But we can still do this,” she said, as they lay in Tom’s bed after filling their two hours together as best they could.
“No, Sue, it’s got to be all or nothing.”
“My kids are three and five, Tom. It wouldn’t be right. Maybe in a few years…”
So that was the end of him and Sue, and the end of his Spanish course too. Even seven years on he still thought about her now and then, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame her for the fact that he was now settling into a cave in the wilds of southern Spain. He hadn’t been so heartbroken, but she had been an inquisitive, cultured woman, the like of whom he’d be unlikely to run into again in his dour northern town.
Tom thought about Sue as he unpacked his rucksack in the light of the cave entrance. He hadn’t done any more college courses after they had gone their separate ways, for fear of meeting her there. The Spanish course had rekindled his interest in the country, but from then on he associated the language with Sue, so any plans to return were pushed to the back of his mind.
Better to have loved and lost, I suppose. Maybe there’ll be a nice Spanish girl out there for me… well, a woman, as I am forty-three now. Ha, being a cave dweller will narrow the field a bit, to say the least. Now, let’s have a look at my worldly possessions, not counting all those boxes I left at Darren’s.
His voice sounded loud in the cave, though he was speaking softly enough. He shuffled through the eight books he had brought. A dictionary; a Spanish grammar book; Walden, of course; Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, in case his stoicism faltered; Don Quixote, in English, as the original was way beyond his linguistic abilities; The Brothers Karamazov, as he found Dostoyevsky such hard work that he knew it would last him a long time; a travel guide to Andalucía, for when the walls of his cave and gully ceased to fascinate him; and Bouvard and Pécuchet, because although Flaubert hadn’t quite had time to finish it, Tom loved the story of the two Paris clerks, released from their drudgery by Bouvard’s inheritance. Free to pursue their practical and intellectual interests, ranging from archeology to theology, their constant failure to achieve anything of note was, Tom had read, Flaubert’s way of questioning what is knowable.
They were seen as clowns, though they were pretty ludicrous, and I’ll be seen as a clown when people find out I’m living here. ‘Why?’ they’ll ask. ‘Pushing the boundaries,’ I’ll say, when I learn how to say it. They’ll look puzzled, then laugh when I’ve gone. What of it? Hell, one decade posting letters is much like another, and did I really want two more of them?
He leant the books against the wall on a plastic bag, though the cave didn’t seem damp, and wondered if he should have brought his e-reading device. No, he most certainly shouldn’t, or he’d be scurrying into the village he was yet to explore to recharge the damn thing. His cheap mobile phone was fully charged and switched off, and that was the only concession he was going to make to modern life, apart from his digital watch, head torch and small gas canisters.
When he had placed and lit three fat candles he switched off his head torch and left it near his books. He knew that candles had been around for a few thousand years, so when he averted his eyes from his modern gear he ought to have felt no different to any other cave dweller from times gone by, except that he doubted that any of them had felt as uncomfortable as he did. After sitting on his packed sleeping bag for a while, he tried sitting cross-legged on the foam mat, but when that tired him he concluded that if he didn’t want to spend most of his time indoors lying down, he’d better make, find or buy some kind of chair.
Tom was handy, but not handy enough to fashion a comfortable seat from anything nature might provide in the vicinity. Maybe he would find an old plastic chair dumped somewhere near the village, but it wouldn’t do to be seen scavenging, as that wasn’t the kind of impression he wished to make when he eventually revealed himself.
He wasn’t a vain man, but knew that he was self-conscious enough to care what the villagers thought when they finally laid eyes on him. He carried a flimsy knapsack in his rucksack and planned to wander up to the village one day as if he had just got off the bus.
Come on, you’ve only been inside here for an hour and you’re already thinking about other people. Find yourself first, before you go looking for company.
Still, a chair would be nice and he feared that a trip down to Baza, a town of some twenty thousand inhabitants, might be necessary as he doubted that he would find a purveyor of folding chairs in the village. It was a shame that the cave walls sloped inwards, but one couldn’t have everything.
Tomorrow I’ll collect some rocks and make a place to lean back on, because I’m not going to the village for another six days, and then only to shop. Food, coffee, candles, maybe a spare lighter. What else?
He pondered for a while, but couldn’t think of anything else he really needed. A newspaper? Not yet. He would switch on his phone every few days and was sure that one friend or another would tell him if the world was about to end. If that were the case he would go to the village and get drunk, but if not he would save his bottle of good red wine for a special occasion.
He’d had his bouts of heavy drinking in the past, such as after he was told he would never run competitively again, and after splitting up with Sue, but it had been a few years since he’d rounded off his week’s work with a heavy session. Drunk on Saturday night, rough on Sunday, lethargic on Monday, back to work on Tuesday. What a waste of life.
He stirred himself. Half past six. Daylight enough to make a start on his easy chair, and the work would make getting to sleep easier.
Two hours later the sun was setting and he had carried up several rocks from the ravine and stacked them against the wall to enable himself to sit upright, cushioned by his sleeping mat. He could improve the angle the next day and maybe find an old board somewhere for a seat. Perhaps that trip to Baza wouldn’t be necessary after all.
Food, coffee and candles. Was it possible that he really needed nothing else? Thoreau’s cabin in Walden Woods had been a complex affair compared to this, and he’d nipped into town most days to enjoy his mother’s cooking. Henry David had had a bed, a table, three chairs, a fireplace, and a cupboard for his clothes. True, he’d built the cabin himself, but his famous pal Emerson had lent him the land to build it on. All things considered, Tom thought he was adapting to his own circumstances pretty well and only hoped that boredom wouldn’t set in and convince him that what he was doing was a waste of time.
Thoreau had been a genius, after all, though few had known it at the time. With a brain like that, plus writing materials, and surrounded by the nature he loved, he had been in his element. Tom liked nature well enough, but didn’t know a buzzard from a barn owl and doubted that the severe landscape that surrounded his cave would offer the same delights as the miles of wild woodland where Thoreau had spent hours on end; sometimes walking, sometimes sitting in contemplation, that great mass of grey matter chugging happily away.
The New Englander wouldn’t have been suffering from internet addiction back in the 1840s either. Tom wasn’t as hooked as some people and was able to walk up to a mile without pulling out his smartphone – now sold – and prodding it, but at home he had found it hard to stay away from the laptop for more than an hour at a time. The weeks spent planning his new life had only exacerbated his compulsive behaviour, so after cooking and eating his pasta and Bolognese sauce, his fingers began to feel very itchy indeed.
He was pleased, even relieved, when after reading a few pages of The Brothers Karamazov he began to confuse the brothers and was too sleepy to care. He blew out the candles on either side of him and zipped up his sleeping bag.
My second night and I’m showing no signs of madness yet. Buenas noches, cueva mía. Mañana será un nuevo día.
Tom had positioned his sleeping bag facing the cave entrance and when the alarm on his watch woke him, light was beginning to filter inside. When he could make out his possessions he got up, banged his head on the roof, swore softy, and began to dress. By the time the sun had risen over the top of the ravine he had washed, filled his collapsible water carrier, and taken his trowel some way down and away from the stream, where he had already located the patch of earth that would do as his loo for a while.
He felt self-conscious as he crouched over the hole, but reassured himself that the chances of someone wandering up the gully at eight o’clock on a weekday morning were remote. Tomorrow, a Saturday, he would be as well to look out for hunters, though he was almost sure that the season for small game had already ended. A fortnight ago a doubt of this kind would have had him reaching for his phone to find out for sure, and he chuckled to himself as he made his way back to the cave.
If they hunt, they hunt, and if they don’t, they don’t, so why worry?
He could ask in the village in a few days anyway. It might be a good conversation starter in the bar, though he wasn’t sure that he would understand their replies. He’d had that problem in Granada and Baza, and had concluded that the reward for preparing a perfect sentence was a torrent of words that he could only respond to by saying, ‘No hablo español muy bien.’ Far better, he had found, to speak badly so that they would know right away that they were talking to a fool or a foreigner.
Tom was quite swarthy for a Lancastrian. His eyes and hair were very dark, and as postmen are exposed to whatever sunshine is on offer – more than people like to think – twenty years in the open air had made him duskier than most. In the long run this should help him to integrate, he thought, but in Granada he had sometimes wished for blonde hair and blue eyes when a statement like, ‘It is warm for the time of year,’ was met by an incomprehensible barrage of words.
Rather than climbing back up to the cave, he left his water container and walked downstream looking for firewood. Where the gully opened out a little there were a few stunted pine trees and what he thought might be juniper bushes, and he picked up and cracked off a few dead twigs and branches. Back at the cave he built a small fire in the entrance and looked at it, scratching his head.
It might fill the cave with smoke, it would certainly dirty his doorstep, and he had no spare paper. He could start working his way through the five hundred sheets of Dostoyevsky – an incentive to plough on through the book – but is seemed a bit disrespectful. In the end he stacked the firewood at the back of the cave and lit his camping stove.
I’m no Bear Grylls, after all, and the canisters last a long time. Besides, the smoke might attract someone’s attention, and I don’t want the Guardia Civil to know I’m here.
Content with this excuse, he boiled water for coffee and ate some muesli. It was all the tinned food and cartons of milk that had made his rucksack so heavy, and his next shopping expedition was sure to raise eyebrows if anyone saw him leave the village.
What the hell? They’ll find out I’m here eventually, and after a week alone I might be glad of a bit of attention. If the cops move me on, so be it. It’s not as if I can’t afford to rent a place. Now, what am I going to do today?
Tom had no trouble filling his time on his first full day in his new home, mainly because the warm sun meant that he hardly entered the cave at all. In the morning he walked eastwards, away from the village, and as he followed the mostly dry riverbeds it occurred to him that his private stream might not keep flowing all summer long.
Having always been something of a worrier, issues like this would help him to cultivate his new outlook on life. For years he had worried about his father’s health, his own lack of purpose, and dozens of other trifling things. Now he resolved to simplify his life to such an extent that he would have nothing to waste his time worrying about. With good health and over £200,000 in the bank, why on earth did he have to worry? As he walked along from one gully to the next he made a rough mental calculation and shared it with the few birds which were fluttering about.
If I spend about thirty euros a week on shopping – call it forty to include clothes and whatnot – that’s about two grand a year, so I should be OK for the next hundred years or so.
After about two hours spent zigzagging through the gullies he scrambled up one of the higher of the squat hills and was pleased to see fields to the east, so his arid, ribbed domain stretched maybe four miles across. To the north he could make out flatlands in the distance, but to the south he saw nothing but a succession of gullies. It wasn’t really land fit for human habitation, but where else in southern Spain could one live in a cave for free?
On his way back he made some more pragmatic calculations. If he did have to rent a place his annual expenditure could rise as high as eight thousand euros. That would allow him to live for twenty-five years, but at sixty-five – no, sixty-seven – he would receive maybe two-thirds of a state pension and a handy amount from his Post Office pension too. If, on the other hand, he bought a cave house, and quite a decent one could be had for thirty thousand in the area, he should be able to get by on as little as four thousand euros a year.
That makes more sense, but why on earth am I spending my time thinking about money when the whole idea is to get away from such worldly matters? Peace of mind, I guess, but put a lid on it now.
On his return to the cave he lunched on noodles and fruit, before taking a mug of coffee and his well-thumbed copy of Walden to the plateau above the cave. He settled down against a rock to flick through the book and remind himself how Thoreau had spent his time during those two years, two months and two days in the cabin by Walden Pond.
He had walked in the woods for hours on end studying the bountiful flora and fauna of the near-virgin woods, which he later wrote about in great detail. Tom looked up and over the infertile ravines and didn’t think that erudite chap would have got much mileage out of what he saw.
He had read a lot, often in Greek or Latin. Tom had eight books, most of which he had read before, and to obtain more would probably require a trip to Granada, or a postal address.
Being only two miles from the town of Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau had received plenty of visitors, some of them as highbrow as himself, Emerson’s residence there having attracted more writers and academics to a town only fifteen miles from the long-established Harvard University. Tom lived about two miles from the village, which he doubted was a hub of cultural activity, and no-one knew he was there.
Thoreau had gone home for lunch most days, something he played down in the book. Tom’s father was dead and his mother was on the other side of the world
Above all, Thoreau had written, mostly in the detailed journal that he kept up from 1837 until 1861, a year before his death at the age of forty-four. Tom had brought a single notebook in which all he had written so far were some Spanish phrases and a few economic calculations. He closed his eyes and leant back to absorb the sun’s rays.
Well, comparisons are odious anyway, so I think I’ll put Henry David back in the rucksack for now and go and finish my chair.
He rose, picked up a couple of stones, and took them down to the cave, before spending the rest of the afternoon completing his first DIY task. By dint of much searching in the stream he managed to construct a chair that was comfortable enough to lean against even without the foam mat, for a while at least.
What else could he do to improve his home? The doorway was fine as it was, as to reduce its size would darken the cave even more. In the long-term he could really go to town and furnish the place properly, but as the sun began to set he had a feeling that his stay there wasn’t going to be a lengthy one.
It was a thrill to be there and he was pleased that he had dared to do it, but he already felt that this stripping down to bare essentials was just the first stage in his reinsertion into the civilised world. It was like taking a cure, after which he would go back among people with a clean bill of mental health. Not that he had been nuts or depressed before he arrived, but he had needed a purge and he was getting it.
If I had a real vocation as a hermit, I wouldn’t be counting down the days till I can go to the village, would I? It’s good to feel sleepy too, because the sooner I see the sun again, the better.
That’s how he felt that evening, but by the following afternoon he was feeling a lot more upbeat about the whole thing, not least because he had met a man from the village. Tom had spotted him walking along the rough path near the stream as he sat in the mouth of the cave drinking a cup of tea. His first impulse had been to withdraw into the shadows, but what was the sense in that? He was constantly wondering how the villagers would react to his presence when his self-imposed exile was over, and here was a chance to test the water right away.
Besides, the man down below was no khaki-clad hunter with a loaded shotgun, but a youngish chap striding purposefully along dressed in sports clothes and trainers. Tom quickly pulled on his boots, hoping to distance himself from the cave before he was spotted, in case the man proved unsympathetic.
When their eyes met, Tom had almost reached level ground and the chap’s cheery wave put his mind at ease.
“Buenos días,” said Tom, drawling his words somewhat to leave no doubt that he wasn’t a Spaniard.
“Buenos días. No tienes frío?”
“Frío, no,” he said, although he did feel a little chilly in his vest and shorts down in the breezy ravine.
The man nodded and might have walked on, but Tom decided to spill the beans and gauge the friendly-looking fellow’s reaction.
“I’m staying in a little cave up there,” he said in Spanish, before pointing to the pine tree that partly concealed the entrance.
“Up there?” he asked, looking puzzled and amused.
“Yes, I’m Tom. I’m from England.”
“I’m Raúl, from the village over there,” the wiry man of about thirty said, before offering Tom his hand. “So there’s a cave up there, is there?”
“Yes, a small one that I found one day,” Tom tried to say, before launching into a hurried explanation of his movements and motives, which must have sounded something like this:
“I am postman in England. My father die, so I sell house and come to Spain. I want to live alone some weeks. I need to think.” Tom tapped his head and smiled. “Next week I go to village to buy food and speak to people.”
Raúl nodded, smiled and looked around him pointedly.
“So you like this countryside?”
“It is dry, but it is quiet, and here I find a cave.”
“Can I see it?”
“Yes, of course,” said Tom, before leading the way up the slope.
At times, while sitting in the cave entrance obscured by the pine tree, he had thought he might go unnoticed for weeks, but Raúl’s request produced a pleasant tingle of anticipation which belied any real desire for anonymity. This approachable man would no doubt spread the news of the English eccentric, and was it not better for this to happen sooner rather than later? If the Guardia Civil came the next day to move him on, so be it, but at least he would know where he stood.
“Be careful with your head, Raúl,” he said, before entering and quickly lighting three candles. When he turned to face him, he beheld an expression which combined wonder and amusement.
“What a nice little cave! Very dry too. I must have walked past here fifty times and I’ve never seen it.”
“It is difficult to see from the… river,” Tom said, unable to recall the word for stream.
“El arroyo, sí, but soon it will be dry.”
“Yes, it rained a lot in March, so there is water, but in two, maybe three weeks it will be dry,” Raúl said, his look of sympathy suggesting that he believed that Tom intended to stay, maybe through necessity.
“Are there any other… streams near here that will have water for more time?” Tom asked, disinclined to diminish Raúl’s expectations of him.
“Maybe one to the south, fifteen or twenty minutes’ walk from here, but by June it will be dry too, I think.”
“I have this,” Tom said, pointing to his five litre water container.
“Ha, you look strong, so maybe you can carry water from the village,” Raúl said, pointing from the container to the rucksack. “And you’ll be able to bathe in the village pool in summer.”
So he really does think I’m here to stay, Tom thought, and who am I to disappoint him?
“That is a good idea. But, do you think the people in the village will… will they think it all right for me to be here?”
“Why not? It’s a free country and you bother no-one. Besides, very few people come this way; me and one or two more people who like walking.”
“And the… people who hunt?” he asked, pleased that Raúl was speaking slowly and clearly.
“Not until the autumn, and there’s little to hunt around here nowadays. In winter you may be cold.”
“Yes, but I hope the cave will…”
“Maintain its temperature?”
“Hmm, that’s the case with big caves, but here, when the temperature drops below zero, you’ll be cold,” he said, pointing and sketching out the shape of the doorway. “Here we’re over seven hundred metres above sea level, you know.”
“Oh, in winter I think I will be somewhere else,” Tom said, thinking it best to disabuse Raúl of the idea that he planned to live out his days in the cave. “So you live in the village?”
“Yes, but I’m a lorry driver, so I’m away much of the time. I go to Germany and sometimes Denmark. Anyway, I must get back home for lunch now. My wife will be waiting for me.”
“OK,” said Tom, who had been about to offer him coffee. “I will walk with you some way.”
“Good, we can talk.” Raúl smiled and strolled around the cave nodding. “A good cave for me as I’m not so tall. An interesting chair, but you need some more furniture, I think,” he said with a laugh.
“Yes, maybe, if I stay,” Tom said, the lure of civilisation seeming to grasp him around the neck.
He pulled on a fleece top before leading the way back down to the stream. The two men walked in silence for a while, each wondering what the other was thinking.
“Do you have family?” Raúl asked as they left the stream and climbed the path to the next gully.
“My mother is in New Zealand.”
“Oh, a long way from here.”
“I have aunts and uncles in England, and friends.”
“So why come here?”
“Oh, the weather is better here and my life was boring.”
“More boring than alone in a cave?”
“I want a complete change. I have some money, so I want to live in a different way.”
“To live without so many things. No cars or computers. To live a more simple life.”
“What will you do all day?”
“I don’t know. I am only in the cave for two days.”
“Ha, a very new experience,” Raúl said, patting him on the shoulder. “It’s interesting. I wouldn’t do it, but it’s interesting.”
“Do you have children, Raúl?”
“Two, a boy and a girl, of six and four.”
“That’s nice,” Tom said, thinking about Sue.
“No, no children.”
“There’s the village ahead. Do you know it?”
“Come to lunch then. My wife always makes too much food.”
“Thank you, Raúl, but not today.”
“As you wish.”
“I want to stay in the cave for one week before I go to the village.”
“I don’t know,” Tom said with a chuckle.
“Ha, you English people are strange! There’s one English lady in the village and she’s a little strange.” He laughed and shook his head.
“Is she the only foreigner?”
“No, there’s also a couple from Belgium and some more people who have cave houses and come on holiday. Foreign people like the cave houses.”
“Do you not like them?”
“They’re nice, but too dark to live in, I think. Listen, you must come to lunch next weekend. Sunday will be best. I’ll come to the cave at about one o’clock and we’ll walk back together.”
“Yes, yes, I would like that. Thank you, Raúl,” he said effusively, relieved not to be losing touch with this kindly chap due to his daft compulsion to go it alone for a week.
Raúl stopped, turned, and held out his hand, which Tom grasped gratefully. “Well, enjoy your week of solitude. I hope you begin to find what you’re looking for.”
“Me too. Until next Sunday, Raúl, and thank you.”
“Ha, you haven’t tried my wife’s cooking yet. Adiós, Tom, and take care.”