It was late evening and the Bay of Alcudia was still a cauldron.
The tourists were wilting visibly under the red sky. Americans dabbed at their faces with kerchiefs as they steered their Winnabebagos of bellies through the crowds. Germans were scrupulously clean in their long shorts and red faces – and the Brits, well they were just the Brits, low-slung Bermudas revealing tourist cleavage, sweat breaking out like grease on roasting pigs.
But what can you expect in such a popular part of Mallorca? It’s Marbella, Torremolinos and Blackpool all rolled into one … the perfect place for sun, sex and sangria.
Something happened though, late that evening, as the street vendors turned fake watches into gold, the restaurant barkers handed out flyers, hotels pulsated to the Chicken Song, and the English bar’s neon donner kebabs flashed above their doors.
I was down at the marina, where millionaires walk on water and the hoi polloi dream of getting off dry land.
She was there, quiet, dignified and weeping. I doubt I will ever see such beauty again. She was black as night … her tears as big as pearls.
The holidaymakers barely gave her a second glance as they melted in and out of the bars.
The marina was like a thousand restless horsemen with their white lances held high. The smell of veal and squid stained the air.
She looked into the endless sky as the sun began to slip down behind the mountains.
She was searching for somebody or something. Tears fell into her lap and she implored the darkening void without embarrassment.
Like all the other good tourists, I tried to ignore her and went about my hedonistic business.
Yet, there was something about this tragic apparition that helped me begin to make sense of this mountainous and invariably parched island.
I noticed the crescent of the moon and geometry of the stars above the sea, where the sky was beginning to darken.
Despite the fact that everyone is on the make, from the melon dealers on the beach to the refugees who haunt the streets in the early hours selling cheap jewellery and bootleg CDs, there is a sense of hidden drama and beauty here.
Maybe tourists don’t want to see it. Perhaps they are blinded by all the neon lights and flashy hotels in a place like Alcudia.
If you simply want to roast in the sun, then stay by the beach and eat beef burgers in La Luna, take a ride on the sausage boat – or set sail in a pedillo, it’s all good fun … but remember that the sea stinks of raw sewage, and chemicals from a factory a couple of miles down the coast can melt your eyes.
Health and Safety doesn’t mean a thing here. They drive anywhere, on or off the pavements and everyone has a different interpretation of what the traffic lights mean. Spit roasts actually spit at you and the water is the next best thing to colonic irrigation.
El Paco’s bar, 20 yards from the sea and the focal point for thousands of visitors, housed a broken plate glass window for at least seven days – and the gent’s loo was spattered with blood.
I decided it was time to get away from it all, so I took to the air – in a micro light, one of a number of adventures I’d promised myself.
It’s a strange way to travel. A gondola, suspended from wings that even Icarus would have turned down, powered by an engine that doesn’t look powerful enough to turn a washing machine.
But up here I began to sense what that girl might be weeping for.
I sputtered over the walls of Alcudia town and skirted round mountains where an abandoned cloud was pinned. Beneath me the North of Majorca was laid out … the fishermen, the orange and lemon groves, monasteries, donkey carts, ancient abandoned houses and an ostrich farm.
The town of Inca unfurled below, and I could see the market spreading like mercury through its mediaeval streets – the leopard circus, millionaires and peasants living cheek by jowl.
At one point my washing machine engine failed and I faced going into a fast spin – but the very air saved me. A current buoyed me over the forests, highways and country lanes that seem to endlessly go nowhere, and dropped me gently into a field.
I had the conceit of Biggles at that moment … and felt the secret tranquillity and peace of what is actually one of the most beautiful places on earth.
It takes a good barman on the island six seconds to poor a straight brandy and it costs you less than a beer. I’d had five when I asked the barman at La Luna who the girl at the marina was.
He told me nobody knew – but every year for the last five she has appeared, in July, by the sea. Rumours about her have developed into a legend – and it is said that she prays to her father who died in a fishing accident off the coast. They also say she prays for the safety of all the fishermen who sail from here every day.
North Africans have lived on Majorca for 1700 years, and it struck me that perhaps she is mourning the loss of her history.
Eight straight brandies later and doubts set in. Maybe there was something else about her. Perhaps she was just a slice of seaside theatre. A sideshow. Perhaps she got a grant to support her performance art. Maybe she was just a phoney.
I slept as in a coma that night.
The next day I needed stinging black coffee, the sort that is so strong it makes your heart go out of sync.
I turned off the beach, negotiated the traffic and headed into the Old Town.
You couldn’t call Bella’s a bar, or even a coffee shop. It was more a coffee tree.
Bella was breathless and old with haunches like a bull. Each morning she struggled to put four white plastic tables and eight plastic chairs under the palm tree at the side of her hovel on the edge of an ancient walled square.
A large cast iron coffee pot rattled the day away on the cracked and smoking range in a kitchen that should have been condemned. She served with dignity and silence in chrome cups the shape of small ice cream scoops. She didn’t smile and wouldn’t speak unless she was spoken to.
Coffee was all she served. And it was black gold.
You could get away from it all at Bella’s. It wasn’t a part of anything. She wasn’t on the tourist’s map of attractions. She was just there, serving coffee for a few pesetas.
She got ‘busy’ twice a day. Once in the morning when the coach arrived from the mountains, the second, mid-afternoon, when it was heading back again.
I watched it arrive, diesel engine so dry it sounded like a dozen hammers battering on tiny anvils. The gears didn’t fit and it coughed black smoke rings from the broken exhaust. The driver jumped down and let out what I took to be a curse.
He lit a cigarette and headed into the Old Town proper. An elderly couple alighted and creaked towards Bella’s. The old coach hissed like a short sharp sigh and settled in on itself.
And that’s when I saw her again, stepping through the fog of exhaust fumes.
She had a child with her. She was wearing a calico dress that touched her in all the right places. Her hair was tied high on her head. She was serene but her eyes were haunted.
It struck me that she had no luggage.
Bella knew my symptoms. Plenty of tourists with a hangover had sat under her tree. She poured me another cup of coffee.
I put the sentence together as best I could: “Sabes quien es? Porque viene aqui?”
Bella turned, fists on hips, massive belly rising and falling under her pinafore, to squint after the retreating coach. She made a derisory spitting noise and waved her finger in a circular motion by the side of her head: “Alguna gente en las monta√É‚Äôas … cree que donde el sol, mar, tierra y aire estan juntos, tambien esta alli el Dios.”
I smiled and nodded. Bella had said something I could roughly translate as: “(She comes from) the mountains … people there say that if you find a place where the sea, the land, the sky, the sun, the stars and moon meet, then you have found the place where God lives.”
I was a little mystified. I sipped my coffee and pondered.
By the time I reached the marina, it was late evening. The afternoon glow had turned to a fiery red. I looked out over the ocean, past the chemical fog and the factory, to the margin of the world where the sea folds into the sky. I could see the moon and its attendant stars begin to appear.
As I looked, I started to make things out – dark shapes of things to come. I saw people unfolding, a small town beginning to twinkle in the fading light. Buried thoughts rising. Broken hearts. I saw a place where memories gather.
And for the first time in days I remembered why I was on this journey across the world. I remembered the thing I’d lost.
The holidaymakers barely gave me a second glance as they melted in and out of the bars.