You first stumbled across the farm 5 years ago, rosy fresh from high school and much younger than you thought you were. High in the mountains, the weather is brutal.
In winter, storms throw branches against the caravan doors and from under a tumble of blankets your breath catches in the morning frost. In summer, the sun blisters pale shoulders and river beds crack. Rain or shine, the unaffected horses paw the ground with anticipation as you haul their buckets of feed from paddock to paddock, a couple of cats or dogs trotting at your heels as you go.
What you thought would be a short riding holiday ended up being a crucial turning point in your life. You stay on as a yard hand for the winter, grafting over blue buckets of horse feed, squabbling with the geese and polishing tack with hands cramped from the mountain snow. You had, in fact, flown your comfy nest in England to land in another one in the South of Spain. A slightly harder nest, that that made the first one look like a memory foam mattress, but a nest nonetheless.
Wandering up a little mountain ridge, you watch the orange sun erupt from the hills. Tiny birds fill the sky and long grasses scratch at your legs. You breathe the scent of wild herbs; rosemary, oregano, wild garlic and thyme and close your eyes a moment. You open them to a pack of dogs on the horizon, tearing after a strange ungainly shape on the hillside. Wild boar. No matter, the boar is moving faster, though strangely put together, so it lopes along in the most uneven looking way. If the dogs were fast enough, it would work out worse for them.
The pit drop toilet sits on a concrete platform and has no roof or walls. It does have a view. On a clear day you can see for miles, lakes and mountains and sometimes a scrap of sea. When the sun sets the view gives way to little cars lighting up the distant roads like stars. A black bin full of sawdust sits beside it and you carefully pull your phone out of your back pocket and lay it down each time. Once, your friend forgot to do this and her phone went tumbling down into the depths of the pit drop. She had to take a pick axe to the concrete platform, calling her phone to light the way. The phone isn’t the only thing that got lit up down there.
After the sun rises, the solar is strong enough to pump water to the little outdoor shower. In winter you don’t wash enough, avoiding exposing your skin to the cold for as long as you can get away with. A bucket full of water substitutes a washing machine and a fleet of mismatched caravans to lay your head down. At night, the stars shine so brightly that you can see the curve of the sky, no lights, no cars, just silence. Your body sighs with relief. Time to think, space to breathe, and yet somehow your head gets quieter.
You brush your teeth in starlight, your headlamp shining in the eyes of the horses in their paddocks and dogs in their kennels. Something waddles across the path and you jump in fright. Oh, it’s just a toad, bigger than both your fists combined. Fat, warty and in no kind of hurry. Occasionally, a horse gets loose and you lie in bed listening to the sound of excited little hooves for a couple of minutes, willing somebody else to wake up and take them back to their paddock. Sometimes they do, and sometimes you pull cold wellies over bare feet and stumble out to lay your head against its neck and guide it back to its place.
As the years go by, you come back time and time again. For snatched weekends, a week here, a month there. The farm has become your second home and those that own and work on it your family. Somehow, you seem to have become nanny. Farm nanny. That means nanny on an industrial scale.
Heaving huge sacks of laundry over your shoulder on a Monday morning and filling a good 4 trollies in the supermarket to feed the hungry farm. Picking up 30kg bags of dog and cat food, you help the young lad at the store load the car until it groans. It means swinging by the gas station to buy oil for the generator, then throwing 100 metres of agricultural piping into the back of the 4×4 in time to get the kids from school. It means laying out wires for the blacksmith, and helping the vet to sew up an open wound on the kitchen table. It means singing Spanish pop songs at the top of your voice with the kids, then pulling over on the track to watch the fiery sunset dip behind the mountain ridges. It means feeding horses in the dark then pulling on nearly clean jeans to drink cheap wine and neck tequila with the mismatch bunch of people that have come to call the mountain home.
Only one spot will do. The no frills bar run by your good friend Juan and his family. His mother (with her massive heart) can be found painting oil on canvas in the corner of the bar when she isn’t frying up homemade doughnuts in the kitchen. His father plays cards at a big table with friends and the deep sound of their laughter drifts through to where your friend is feeding you until your tummy wants to burst. If you don’t feel like drinking, then the mountains are waiting. You take my favourite little pony galloping, shrieking with laughter as you both kick dust and fallen almonds at your hooves.
The simple life suits you well, and the sharp pain that tugs at your heart gets so gentle you can barely feel it anymore. You begin to forget the things that drove you here. One night, quite suddenly, you slip a little and lay your head down on your pillow, a couple of big fat tears sliding into your hair as you call your friends back home and ask them if you’re doing the right thing. A little knock on the door and the little girl you care for tiptoes barefoot into the room. She made you a cup of tea. Piping hot and sweet with sugar, you overflow with love for her and wipe your tears with the back of your hand. ‘Thank you darling’ you say and kiss her on the head ‘I’m ok now.’
The next day you drive her elder brother up the mountain track in the 4×4. You’re well used to the uneven, winding track by now, and yet you take a corner wrong and stall. Close behind you, a battered truck slams on the breaks. It’s a guy from town that you’ve been noticing more and more as the years go by, blasting music from the stereo with a car full of friends. Under the pressure your brain melts down and you stall again. And again. And again. The boys are screaming with laughter and shouting ‘verguenza’ (shame) at the top of their lungs as you shudder to the side of the road to let them past. Smoke was coming out of the exhaust at this point but you still make out the joy in the boys’ faces as your toes curl up in horror, cheeks pink and mouth wide open. They drive past in a cloud of smoke, silence in the truck. Then, after a couple of long seconds, you and your young passenger begin to laugh. And then you can’t stop. You laugh until tears run down your cheeks and you think your tummies will never stop hurting.
The mountain is home. The animals, the children, the ranch owner who you love like family. Your patchwork group of female friends that live in the nearby town and in the hills. They give kind advice, shots of tequila and warm hugs. A family of strong and brilliant women who have carved out lives in sweat and tears and make you feel like you can do whatever you want to do. Whatever you want.
When, at last you’re was ready to make the next step a load of you gather at the bar and drink and eat much more than you really ought to. The next day you have a flight to catch and you don’t know it yet, but you’ll be vomiting in the bus toilet wishing your evil mate had never ordered that last tequila. A friend’s young daughter slips a teensy bag into your hand. Inside, a bracelet with the charm of a horse and a note. ‘when you’re not with us, we are with you.’ You know, deep inside, it is time to leave and happy tears come pouring from your eyes as you leave the bar hand in hand with your friends and drive back up to the farm one last time. (For now.)