When I went to live in Farol, the Grandmother who owned the house gave me a cat. ‘Don’t feed it,’ she said. ‘Don’t take any notice of it. It can sleep in the shed and it’ll keep the rats away.’ Farol was full of cats, for which reason it was often called Pueblo de los Gatos – Cat Village. There were several hundred of them living in whatever accommodation they could find in the village, and in caves in the hill behind it. They were an ugly breed, skinny with long legs and small, pointed heads. You saw little of them in the daytime, but after dark they were everywhere. The story was that Don Alberto, the local landowner, who was also a bit of a historian, claimed that they had always been there, and produced a fanciful theory based on some reference made to them by an early traveller that they had some connection with the sacred cats of Ancient Egypt. Mentioning this, the fishermen of Farol would screw their fingers into their temples and roll their eyes in derision as if to say, what will he come up with next? Their version was that the cats had been imported in the old days to clean up the mess left when they degutted fish on the spot before packing them up to be sent away. No one in this part of the world would ever kill a domestic animal, so their numbers soon got out of control. In addition to scavenging round the boats, they hunted lizards, frogs, anything they found edible, including fat-bodied moths attracted to the oleanders on summer evenings, which they snatched out of the air with their paws. Whenever a cat became too old or sick to have about the place, it would be put in a bag and taken to the cork forest and there abandoned. The people who owned this part of the forest lived in the village of Sort, about five kilometres away. They had no cats but were overrun by dogs, and as they, too, were squeamish about taking life, they brought down unwanted animals, borrowed a boat, and left them to die of hunger and thirst on an island a hundred yards or so offshore.

 

It soon became clear that the Grandmother was a person of exceptional power and influence in the village. All the domestic aspects of life – and largely the financial ones, too – came came under the control here of the women, ‘dominated’, to use the local word, by the Grandmother, just as the males were dominated by the five senior fishermen owning the major shares in the big boats. In each case the domination was subtle and indirect, a matter rather of leadership accorded to experience and vision.

The Grandmother had gathered a little respect in deference to her money, but most of it was based on sheer spiritual force. She was large, dignified and slow-moving, dressed perpetually in black, with the face of a Borgia pope, a majestic nose and a defiant chin, sprouting an occasional bristle. A muscular slackening of an eyelid had left one eye half-closed, so that she appeared at all times to be on the verge of a wink. Her voice was husky and confiding, although in a moment of impatience she was likely to burst into an authoritarian bellow. Everything she said carried instant conviction, and the villagers said that she was inclined to make God’s mind up for him, because whenever people left a loophole of doubt about future intentions by adding the pious formula, ‘if God is willing’, she would decide the matter there and then with a shout of, ‘ que quiere’ – of course he’s willing.

As a matter of routine the Grandmother meddled in the family affairs of others. She provided instruction on the mechanics of family planning, investigated the household budgets of newly married couples to decide when they could hope (if ever) to afford a child, and put forward a suitable name as soon as it was born. All the names suggested for male children were taken from a book she possessed on the generals of antiquity, and the village was full of inoffensive little boys called Julio César, Carlos Magna (Charlemagne), Mambró (Marlborough), and Napoleón.

Above all, she was an expert on herbal remedies and the villagers saved on the doctor’s fees by prescriptions provided after a scrutiny of their faeces and urine. ‘Mear claro y cagar duro’ (clear piss and hard shit), she claimed – quoting a saying attributed to Lope de Vega – was at the base of health and prosperity. She also offered a sporadic supply of the urine of a woman who had recently given birth, locally regarded as effective in the treatment of conjunctivitis and certain skin ailments – although in a village where the birthrate must have been one of the lowest in the world, it was rare for a donor to be available.

My room in the Grandmother’s house was odd-shaped and full of sharp edges, with a ceiling slanting up in four triangles to a centre point, and dormer windows throwing segments of light and shade across walls and floor. In Farol they were nervous about using colour, so it was all stark white, and living in this room was rather like living inside a crystal, in which the Grandmother, when she came on the scene, appeared as a black, geometrical shape.

A tiny cubicle contained a charcoal-burning stove, and another a floor of ceramic tiles. It was a feature of the house that illuminated a nook in the Grandmother’s mind inhabited by poetic fancies, for the tiles’ pattern – made to the Grandmother’s own design – depicted flowers on intertwining stems, growing from a central hole beside which a powerful disinfectant in an amphora-shaped container had been placed.

I was taken into the garden to admire another feature of the accommodation: three strands of barbed wire twisted together round the top of the wall, cut from a roll the Grandmother had bought as an extravagance. Beyond the wall a rampart of sunflowers besieged by goldfinches hung their heads, and through their stalks I could see the beach with the glossy, translucent pebbles glittering among the coarse limestone chips, and a rank of purple and yellow fishing boats leaning on it. I asked the price of the room, and the Grandmother’s eyes became misted with introspection. She passed her tongue very slowly in a clockwise direction round her teeth inside the lips, and said, ‘Five pesetas a day. Here,’ she continued, ‘you will enjoy great tranquillity.’

This proved true; to find the place had been an immense stroke of luck. I had been attracted to Farol by its reputation of being the least accessible coastal village in north-east Spain, and I had spent my first week being driven out of the fonda (inn), largely by the smell of cat. The inn was run by two shy, silent brothers I never saw except at mealtimes, when one or other of them would bring the food, drop the plate on the table, head averted, and scuttle away. The food was always tinned sardines – a luxury in this place where they caught fresh sardines sometimes by the ton – and hardboiled eggs. The brothers kept sixteen cats in their cellar, and had taken four more away and left them in the cork forest only the week before I arrived.

My room in the Grandmother’s house had been occupied until a few days before my arrival by the Grandmother’s eldest daughter, her son-in-law and their two small children, who – as I was later told – had been hugely relieved after some years of living in the shadow of the Grandmother’s personality, to be able finally to make their escape.

There were fifty or more such houses in Farol built in an irregular and misaligned fashion into a narrow zig-zag of street, and a few more squeezed where space could be found among the semicircle of massive rocks almost enclosing the village. Standing aloof were several mansions originally belonging to rich cork merchants, who came here for their holidays at the end of the last century; all the mansions were in varying states of decrepitude, and decorated with stone coats of arms to which their owners had not been entitled.

Farol catered for basic needs with a small, decayed church, a ship’s chandlers, a butcher’s shop, and a general store selling a wide range of goods, from moustache wax to hard black chocolate that had to be broken up with a hammer and was kept in a sack, and a single book: Alonso Barros’s Eight Thousand Familiar Sayings and Moral Proverbs, published in 1598, of which almost every house possessed a copy and by which people regulated their lives. The bar offered thin acidulous wine for half a peseta a glass, and was notable for its display of the mummified corpse of a dugong, known locally as ‘the mermaid’. This grotesquely patched and repaired object, with its mournful glass eyes, sewn-on leather breasts and flap covering the sexual parts, was believed to vary its expression, whether pensive, sceptical or malicious, according to the weather, and it was noticeable that strangers who took refuge in the bar from the horrors of the fonda – generally agreed to be the worst in Spain – seated themselves so as not to be depressed by the sight of this macabre trophy.

 

In a village enjoying the brand of democracy, the absence of status-seeking, imposed by a manageable, shared-out poverty, a few influential people emerged in addition to the Grandmother.

The formal head of the community, the Alcalde, an outsider who had been inflicted on the village, had almost been forgiven for serving in the Nationalist Forces in the Civil War by convincing the villagers that he had been a Nationalist not by choice, but by the geographical accident of having been born in territory taken over by the Nationalists. Shopkeepers in Farol acted as bankers, supplying goods on credit throughout the winter in anticipation of sardines and tunny to be caught in summer, and were therefore entitled to some grudging respect. Inevitably, the butcher wielded power through his control of the rare meat supplies – more importantly, of the blood hot from the veins of slaughtered animals, given to sickly children. My next-door neighbour attracted attention to himself in a community that hardly understood the usages of property, through his marriage to a rich peasant girl, who had brought him some fields and trees he had never seen. Five senior fishermen expected to be listened to when any matter relating to the village weal came under discussion. The survivor of the great storm of 7 January 1922, carried in his small boat almost to Italy before being picked up, was never allowed to sit in a bar alone, owing to the belief that his luck was communicable by physical contact. Don Ignacio, the priest, in so far as he could be considered a villager, was well thought of, because he had lived with a mistress quite openly, and had learned to mind his own business.

The other person of consequence would have been seen by most outsiders as a prostitute, although a villager might have pretended, or even felt, surprise at such a suggestion. Sa Cordovesa, possessor of a delicate beauty and charm, had arrived as a child refugee from Andalusia, and now conducted multiple affairs with discretion, even dignity, behind the cover of making cheap dresses. By common consent the community wore blinkers in this matter, a posture of self-defence adopted to cope as painlessly as possible with a situation in which most men could expect to reach the age of thirty before they could afford to marry. Taking refuge in self-deception, Farol invested Sa Cordovesa with a kind of subjective virtue. She had allies – such as the Grandmother – by the dozen, and was made welcome in any house. It was not long before I discovered that there had been a succession of Sa Cordovesas in the past. Farol had solved a social problem in its own unobtrusive way.

This, then, was Farol, cut off more by secret human design than by the accidents of nature, since the narrow, winding and precipitous road leading to it had been dynamited by a landlord within living memory, to keep outsiders away. By reason of its continuing isolation it remained a repository of past customs and attitudes of mind. Life had always been hard – an existence pared to the bone – and local opinion was that it was getting harder, purely because mysterious changes in the sea were directing the fish elsewhere. In most years catches were a little sparser than the year before, but there were optimists who believed that the decline was not necessarily irreversible, and they awaited in hope the end of the cycle of lean years.

The fishermen were totally absorbed by the sea, almost oblivious of the activities of those who lived by the land, wholly ignorant of the fact that only a few miles away a catastrophe was in the making. Three miles back from the shore the cork-oak forest began – hundreds of thousands of majestic trees, spreading their quilt of foliage into the foothills, and up and over the slopes into the low peaks of the sierra. The great wealth of cork belonged to the days before the invention of the metal bottle-top, but even now with slumped sales and low prices the oaks provided a livelihood for hundreds of tree-owning peasant cultivators of Sort, village of dogs, and many other forest hamlets.

In the year before my arrival in 1948, people in Sort began to notice that something was happening to the trees, that the early spring foliage had changed colour and was withering. Word of their neighbours’ alarm reached Farol, but the fishermen shrugged their shoulders and went on preparing their lines or mending their nets. It was impossible for them to understand that their destiny could be in any way linked with that of peasants with whom they had little contact and from whom they were separated by huge differences of temperament and tradition. For the fishermen of Farol the peasants of Sort might have been the inhabitants of another planet, and they found it difficult to interest themselves in their fate, whatever misfortune might have befallen them.

My next-door neighbour, Juan, was the only man in Farol who should at least have had some slight interest in the fate of the oaks, for his wife, Francesca, had brought fifty oaks as her dowry to this dowry-less village, and another seventy had passed to her on her father’s death. She was a lively, high-stepping, intelligent woman who wore a silk dress on all occasions, and had strutted about in high-heeled shoes until the Grandmother had warned her in a tactful fashion that all articles made from leather were taboo in the village. Her gaunt but imposing young husband with his seer’s face, who always seemed on the verge of prophetic utterance, had expressed doubt about the morality of property acquired in the way his had been. Juan salved his conscience by neglecting to visit the trees and the few barren acres that had gone with them, although he agreed to accompany his wife on mushroom-hunting trips in the vicinity, from which they returned with basketfuls of the celebrated amanita caesaria, used by one or more Roman empresses to poison their husbands.

Francesca confirmed that the trees were ailing, about half those on her property being affected. She was worried about the possible loss of revenue from cork, but even more so by the fact that only about half the normal crop of mushrooms had come up the last autumn. Like the rabbits, the mushrooms needed cover and shade. Sort was full of men who had spent their life with trees, and knew all that was to be known about cork oaks, but nobody had ever seen anything like this before. Juan and the rest of the fishermen withheld their sympathy. It was firmly believed that every peasant had a boxful of thousand-peseta notes buried under his floor. ‘They’ll never go short of anything. Let them live on their fat,’ was the general verdict.

The first signs of hard times in Sort was that their dogs were clearly getting even less food than usual and were therefore becoming more venturesome in their forays into Farol territory, where they managed to catch and devour not only an occasional cat, which no one grudged them, but a chicken here and there, which was a grave and unpardonable offence.

Whereas the cats of Farol needed no more than the presence and companionship of man, the dogs of Sort were not wholly independent in the matter of feeding themselves. Their function was to hunt game in the forest, and they were rewarded with the skins, the heads and the feet of the rabbits they caught. Apart from that, they had to make do with the sparse offal to be picked up around the village, and rare cannibal feasts when one of their own kind perished through accident or disease.

Unlike the people of Sort, who were individualists, those of Farol, accustomed to the communal enterprises of the sea, lost no opportunity to work as a team. In both villages women helped to make ends meet by keeping chickens. These, in Sort, would be shut up in cages at night, suspended from trees to keep them out of the reach of the dogs, or the rare fox that ventured into the village once in a while. In Farol, although this kind of protection was less essential, a communal coop had been built for the use of the aged and infirm, and a week after my arrival a pack of famished dogs from Sort managed to break into this and carry off many of the hens.

This was a calamity for which there was no redress. Sort denied responsibility. A peasant from the dog village who had driven a cartload of vegetables over to Farol to barter them for fish, was tackled in the Alcalde’s bar about what was to be done. His reply was, ‘How do you know they were our dogs? You can’t tell one dog from another.’

The fishermen, who were given to informal meetings, held one on the spot; after which they told the man he could take his vegetables back. At a second meeting reprisals were decided upon. The view was that if the Sort people were not prepared to cut down on their dog population, the fishermen would have to take their own measures to reduce their numbers. But how? It was impossible to conceive of anybody taking an axe or a club and killing a dog outright and the idea of using rat poison went against the grain. The final solution was to procure a number of dried sea-sponges, and fry these in olive oil to provide a flavour irresistible to dogs. When, a few days later, the animals had recovered from the surfeit of chickens, the sponges were put out for them on the periphery of the village. It was a time-honoured method, and as ever, successful. The dogs gorged themselves on the dried sponges, which swelled up as they absorbed the gastric juices, until in the end the dogs’ stomachs ruptured. A dog that had come on the scene too late to partake of the fatal meal, was trapped and then, as a traditional gesture of defiance and contempt, castrated and sent home with a black ribbon tied round its neck. The black ribbon symbolized cowardice.

After that, the Sort people kept their dogs under control by fastening them to heavy logs which they had to drag about wherever they went. From this time on, the relationship between Sort and Farol – never more than a watchful neutrality – fell into decline, and the shadow of the vendetta fell across the villages. Despite the annual visit of a clairvoyant who cast horoscopes, consulted the Tarot cards, and thus directed their affairs, the people of Farol had no way of knowing that the great shoals of fish of the past would not return, and the predicament they faced was at least as great as that threatening the villagers of Sort. It was a time for enmities to be put aside, and alliances cemented wherever they could be found, but Farol and Sort turned their backs on one another, and went their separate ways towards an obscure fate.

In Stevenson’s Footsteps
Old Paris